So this semester I have a grand total of five contact hours in college. I probably know a handful of the people in my classes to nod to: they’re a mix of TSM combinations and of third and fourth years. This means a typical college day can consist of going to class, maybe briefly bemoaning whatever wearisome Victorian tome has been assigned as this week’s reading with the person next to me, before putting down hours and hours in the library reading said book silently. Alone.
Obviously this won’t be the case for every arts student, but I do think that sketching the outline of how my days can play out as one highlights just how easy it is to experience a phenomenon that is more common than we’d probably like to admit at this university, and that is loneliness.
A couple of weeks ago, Theresa May appointed the UK’s first ever Minister for Loneliness. Before you dismiss this move as a gimmick or as vaguely ridiculous, bear in mind that over nine million Britons are pathologically lonely – that’s around 14 per cent of the population. And these lonely souls are not just elderly people who desperately try to start up conversations with the cashiers in Tesco or shout one-sided abuse at the characters on venerable soaps of unimpeachable quality.
The appointment of the UK’s Minister for Loneliness actually followed on from research undertaken in memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered by an extremist last year. Cox had personal experience of loneliness: she “experienced and witnessed it personally” during her time at Cambridge University. And Cox isn’t the lone lonely student: it’s reported that 46 per cent of UK students are lonely at university, while for Canadian students that figure climbs to a whopping 66 per cent.
The wider culture that we live in, while forging in irony yet more digital connections between us, nevertheless seems to be disconnecting us from one another in real life
Although I couldn’t find comparable figures for Ireland, it’s pretty safe to assume that the situation here is not dissimilar. The wider culture that we live in, while forging in irony yet more digital connections between us, nevertheless seems to be disconnecting us from one another in real life. With the likes of Netflix and Amazon to keep you entertained and Deliveroo to keep you fed, you don’t even have to leave the house and walk around the corner to collect your hungover burrito any more. So much of our society and culture seems to facilitate and even encourage spending all your time at home, interacting through a self you’ve screened.
Add to that a college course that hardly requires you to be present on campus and that demands a whole lot of time engaged in the solitary activity of reading, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of experiencing loneliness at some stage.
And yet, while the lifestyle of an arts student is somewhat conducive to loneliness, it’s reductive to blame the issue of student loneliness entirely on the lifestyle that such a degree can engender. After all, you can feel terribly lonely in a room full of people. Loneliness is also about a feeling of not belonging. A lack of connection – and meaningful connection – at that. You can feel just as lonely at a massive pre-drink or at a training session for your sports team as you can on your eighth hour in the Ussher not having exchanged two words with another sentient being in real life.
There were times when I lived in Halls when the only time I was ever alone was while cycling into college or getting four to five hours sleep at night (yes, I was that legend), and yet, at times I felt a bone-crushing, aching loneliness like nothing else I’ve experienced, before or after.
There were times when I lived in Halls when the only time I was ever alone was while cycling into college or getting four to five hours sleep at night
I’ve written before on the gap between the expectations and the reality of college life, and I think this probably comes into play with the issue of loneliness too. The social and societal message that college is always this fantastic experience is not just unhelpful, it’s downright damaging. Feeling like you’re wasting what are supposedly the best years of your life, as though you’re the only one not being tagged in hummus memes on Facebook by all your course friends. These things can compound and consolidate lonely feelings.
It’s important to remember that feeling lonely doesn’t mean you’re unloved, and it especially doesn’t mean you’re unlovable. It happens to the best of us, and the worst of us. It’s just a (painful) part of being human. But it’s something I’d like to see us acknowledging more as an undeniable part of the university experience for a lot of people, and something I’d like to see us talking more about – preferably in person.
Because sometimes it’s okay to skip or skim that Victorian novel to get lunch with a friend or ring your mum instead. Loneliness is something you have to work at staving off. And you know what? That’s okay, too.