Do you ever feel like a stranger, even among people you know? I certainly do. In fact, I feel this way all the time—even here at Columbia, where I am surrounded by peers and people I like. The company helps, but loneliness doesn’t always stem from social isolation. Sometimes, it comes from within—from a sense that there are parts of ourselves that we cannot share, no matter what.
Here’s an example. I have a friend who survived horrific childhood abuse by her father. She’s a strong human being. She also harbors a lot of anger, which she directs toward people she loves. I hold no grudge for this. I know her story, or at least part of it—the source of her rage and sadness. Knowing this keeps me from branding her as a jerk, something she’s not. But I also know she suffers every day from the memory of her abuse. It’s a dark secret, one that leaves her feeling like a perpetual outsider, even among her closest friends.
We all keep secrets. And in many ways, our secrets make us strangers. Over the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about secrets and emotional vulnerability on Columbia’s campus. I’ve written before on our tendency as students to hide our vulnerabilities, particularly our ignorance, in order to feel as though we belong. And lately, I’ve been fixating on a particular question: Given that all of us hide so much of ourselves from the people we know, are we each privately bound to feel isolated and excluded at Columbia and everywhere we go? I think so.
This collective sense of isolation, I believe, is our deepest common secret. Though our specific circumstances vary widely, each of us is burdened by the weight of our private worlds, which we carry alone, without help. This drives a wedge between us and the people we know and creates an unmentionable longing for empathy that cannot be assuaged. For my friend, the result is a clear divide in her relationships: on one side, a majority of people that know her casually, and on the other, a tiny group of friends who know the truth of her overwhelming pain. Even so, she still feels unknowable, unlovable, and excluded, even among me and the people she trusts. For my own private reasons, I often feel the same way.
To be clear, my experience at Columbia isn’t dominated by loneliness, and I recognize that our university has done a lot to foster inclusivity. We’ve enacted policies that protect the rights of LGBT students, faculty, and administrators. We have fantastic mental health services and even a crisis hotline—Nightline—where students can reach out for emotional help. Our university has been unapologetic in its support for immigrants and international students affected by President Trump’s disastrous immigration policy. Workshops on consent, safe sex, and prevention of sexual assault are mandatory for all incoming students. About 42 percent of Columbia faculty are women. The list goes on, and the result is that Columbia students feel entitled to be themselves, to speak out, and to demand the best from their administration and each other.
Yet, as much as each of us is lucky for this support, there’s a limit to what this or any community can do to include us. No amount of outside support can relieve the burden of the secrets we carry. And so long as we shoulder the weight of our private worlds, our whole selves, comprised of the hidden and the visible, may never feel completely at home or at ease. Beneath our social selves is a constant undercurrent of secrecy that subtly fractures our lives. This is our shared reality, and no institution is equipped to change it.
My friend who was abused by her father is not a Columbia student. But her secret, or perhaps more so, the pain it brings her, is almost certainly familiar to every student on this campus. I try to show empathy to my friend in any way I can. Empathy is all I have to offer—and here, perhaps, is where I offer a criticism of our culture here at Columbia. As much as our inclusive policies—our safe spaces, our gender-neutral bathrooms, our peaceful demonstrations—are essential, they aren’t interpersonal. They are proclamations of values, not displays of empathy.
It’s no secret that Columbia’s culture is not conducive to showing weakness. In fact, as others have pointed out, this could explain the string of student deaths that rocked our campus over the past year. If the pain of our inner worlds is a burden we are all destined to carry, our competitive culture isn’t making it any easier. As long as we deem it necessary to project perfection, no administrative policies, no on-campus concerts or inflatable jungle-gyms in front of Butler Library, will have any lasting effect. If my friend were a Columbia student, she would sneer at such efforts, considering them to be missing the point. I wouldn’t necessarily agree—I personally love jungle gyms—but I’d understand where she’d be coming from; music and ice cream are no substitute for empathic human connection.
I find myself wondering about others’ secrets, and about their private burdens. I think about my friend, and about the fact that I likely meet people like her at Columbia every day. I also wonder about those young students who took their lives over the past year—what were their secrets? And what are yours? Such things are not for me to know, of course, but I cannot help but wonder, is any of this fixable? Could empathy bridge the gaps between us even if our secrets remain untold? Or are feelings of isolation, even among friends, endemic to such an institution as this, and to life itself?
Are we all strangers among each other? I certainly feel like one, and my secrets make it so.
Johnathan Fuentes is studying sociology at the School of General Studies. He is an avid fan of jungle gyms and the Kerbal Space Program. Find Johnathan on Twitter at @JohnathanAF. My Compass Points South runs alternate Thursdays.
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