Today’s Senior Oration is entitled “Islands, Trees, and the Self-Directed Life,” by Leah Haynes.
College can make you feel lonely. And so, when you first arrive, there’s a lot of emphasis put on finding your “place” here: clubs, organizations, the student-involvement fair, etc. This is all well-intended; administrators and faculty know that the transition is hard and they seem hell-bent on making sure you don’t have to face the next four years alone.
An uncomfortable truth: you are alone.
I know the push-back I am going to get for that statement, but stay with me.
College famously teaches you about communal living. Over the course of our stay, we get really good at operating in groups. We live with strangers who become our friends and join teams and do group projects until we practically identify ourselves exclusively in relation to groups.
An example: at this point, we have mastered the ten-second, self-description: “So, tell me about yourself,” “I’m Leah Haynes; I’m an English and Communication double-major. I am a Sports-Marketing intern, Reference assistant, Student Adviser, PREPARE Student advocate, and a member of the Wake Forest Women’s Club Soccer team.” Everybody has one of these little capsules of what we’ve done with our time here. But here’s the point: each of those identifiers that I listed situates me within a group. I think that’s a problem. It works wonders for a résumé, but learning how to be a part of a group is not enough.
What we don’t focus on so much, is whether we are learning how to be alone. I don’t just mean living in a one-bedroom apartment by yourself—though for some of us that will be part of it—what I do mean is something more like what it means to live your life on your own, to do it yourself. College brings us the obvious self-directed tasks: homework, getting to class, doing your laundry (although here at Wake, you can have someone do that for you too, but that’s a whole other can of worms). However, there’s another set of things that you have to do alone. That list is more subtle, or maybe just less talked about. I like to think of these things as the building blocks of a self-directed life.
Who is it that can do the little things for you, day in and day out, that it takes for you to be a good friend? A good lover? A good parent? A good, decent human being?
What about thinking? Listening? What about really, truly, giving a damn about something or someone when no one’s looking and it won’t be on the final exam.
These are tasks you must do alone. There’s not a place on your resume for them. You can’t delegate them. There’s no google doc or sign-up sheet to pick your shift. No one makes t-shirts.
No one else can love for you. No one else can be happy for you. Someone may set an example for how you might go about doing those things. Maybe it’s through experiences, education, religion, a really good book, or some small, innate voice. But regardless of where you got the blueprint, you’re the only one who’s going to move those blocks.
That goes for the flip-side as well: no one is going to be awful for you either. That’s on you. So is complacency, apathy, cruelty…
I don’t have some single moment of revelation to share with you. There isn’t a time that I can pinpoint when I figured out that I have to be the one to live my life. I suppose it came from the small, mundane things I found myself doing alone. Walking, eating. Have you ever noticed, among all the many errands and activities we do by ourselves each day, that eating alone in public makes you acutely aware of your aloneness? If you really let yourself eat alone—without scrolling through Twitter or pretending to be working on something on your laptop—there’s nothing to distract you from the fact that you are living, breathing, thinking, being in your own skin. That kind of aloneness is, I think, the foundation of a self-directed life. It’s not contingent upon whether people are there. It’s more active, more conscious than that. How often are we really thinking about ourselves as a singular? And if we do, how are we feeling about it? Is it suffocating? Liberating? Incapacitating? Empowering? How are we supposed to “do” life if we aren’t comfortable with the one person we have to do the whole thing with?
John Donne taught us all that no man is an island. I’ve always loved that assertion. And it’s a helpful reminder here that my aloneness doesn’t relieve me of my responsibility to the rest of mankind. He writes: “Every man is a piece of the continent/ part of the main.” True, in a way; but I’ll be honest with you and admit the image doesn’t sit comfortably with my sense of individuality. So let me posit the supplemental metaphor that I think reconciles my discomfort: instead, I am a tree, growing within a forest.
Sure, I exist in a larger collective, but even still I am just a tree—self-contained, with borders, with a beginning and an end. There are billions of other trees—some like me, but many very, very different. Trees before me have grown and fallen, and trees after me will grow and fall. And though they’ve done it all before, none of them can sprout leaves or weather storms or chase the sun or face the inevitable fall for me. My roots are, of course, tangled up in a big mess of interconnectedness—dirt and worms and other roots—but I have to suck up my own water, find my own light, and grow. Me. Alone.
You have to go to bed each night and wake up each day with yourself. You have to spend your entire life inside your own head. You won’t always be interacting with a group, but you will always be with yourself. So, as important as it is to make sure you can play nice in all of the group situations life throws at you, it’s equally important to make sure you’re getting along well with yourself.
An uncomfortable truth: you are alone. Don’t worry; so am I. I suppose that’s why being alone doesn’t have to be lonely at all—when you realize everyone else has to do it too.