After the week of NSOP’s manufactured fun, the isolating reality of being a student at Columbia begins. Although it was exhausting to have to repeat my name, college, and intended major to every person I met, I found comfort in constantly having company and never having to dine alone. However, once the revelry is over, it becomes exponentially more difficult to sit down at a table in John Jay and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
During my first few weeks of classes, I did everything in my power to make sure I always had an eating companion. Even if I didn’t necessarily feel like eating with someone, I would relentlessly text my acquaintances, “Hey, do you want to go to John Jay?” in order to avoid seeming friendless to the people passing by my table. Despite my best efforts, one day, my worst fears were actualized when I couldn’t find anyone to eat with me. I was horrified. “What if someone I knew saw me eating alone? What would they think?” I thought.
It wasn’t the act of eating alone that scared me; it was being seen eating alone. Coming from a small high school where I knew every single one of my classmates by name, it was unusual for me to eat unaccompanied in the cafeteria. This fear was only magnified by John Jay’s long wooden tables with plenty of seats, perfectly designed for groups of friends to eat together.
However, that day, I decided it was time to face my fears. After nervously swiping into John Jay and wading through the mass of students to get my meal, I began my search for a table where I could eat quickly and leave with as few people having seen me as possible. I sat down and immediately took out my laptop and headphones, in order to give the impression of simply being too busy to eat with other people.
Nevertheless, once I sat down, I realized how ridiculous it is that we associate shame and loneliness with eating alone. As college students with hectic schedules, it is completely reasonable and often necessary for us to eat meals alone. I was so caught up in my own insecurities that I never even noticed the multitude of other people eating alone as well.
As a first-year, I think that it is especially easy to fall victim to the narrative dictating that we must fill every waking moment with social interaction in order to make our college experiences meaningful and enjoyable. I felt as though spending time by myself would mean that I was wasting my time in college, or that I would be lonely. However, I learned that there is a significant difference between eating alone—or solitude in general—and loneliness.
I have now come to look forward to my solitary meals and no longer feel anxious when entering a dining hall unaccompanied. As Columbia students, we are constantly bombarded with grades, lectures, club meetings, and deadlines, and this lack of focus on the self only exacerbates the already-prevalent issues associated with mental health on this campus. I had been so busy forging friendships and avoiding the fear of missing out that I had left no time for introspection or relaxation. Now that I have more time to reflect, I’ve found that I am much more at peace with myself and enjoy the time that I spend with my friends even more. I still enjoy meals with my friends when our schedules align, but I now welcome meals alone and have intentionally incorporated them into my daily routine as my time for self-awareness and meditation. I am proud to say that I have conquered my fear of being alone, and look forward to the next four years of unaccompanied adventures in the city and in the dining hall.
The author is an opinion trainee and a first-year in Columbia College studying neuroscience and Spanish. You can email him your favorite song at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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