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A while ago, my friend Bassel told me that “small talk is an affront to our society.” We don’t really appreciate it often, but what we choose to say holds meaning. More specifically, we don’t appreciate the emotions behind why we express the things we do. Though the phrase “I hope you’re doing well,” is not necessarily characteristic of “small talk,” it still sometimes feels as empty as if it were.

And of course, the phrase is naturally used more often during times of distress, or even tragedy. Now though (other than hearing it incessantly from companies emailing me, trying to maintain customer loyalty), the phrase does hold more weight than its stereotypical hollow uses; it feels more real. But then, why do words sometimes mean so much more than usual? And why can’t they mean more in times that aren’t necessarily emotionally intense?

I have lived alone since coming to college. It has its benefits, surely, like having a place where you can just be with yourself, especially in a city where you’re never really alone (for better or worse). Beyond that, I always felt that I needed “personal space.” I realize now that I may have set these boundaries out of an ostensible need to avoid certain levels of intimacy that felt “out-of-bounds” of what I usually gravitated to. The same boundaries that I set at home, where I avoid divulging too much of any anxieties, but also too much of any good news. The same boundaries that I set at school, where I would rather reserve any times of wallowing in loneliness to be felt, ironically, alone in my dorm room. Expressing too much emotion in close quarters—one way or the other—feels almost taboo.

These boundaries all tend to follow the same general formula. Feeling especially happy? Careful, you might jinx things. Feeling down in the dumps? Save it, you ought not to burden anyone else.

This past semester, I lived with friends. I reveled in the basic yet “wholesome” things with loved ones that we so often crave yet never seem to fulfill (otherwise why would we crave them so much?): baking, playing games, movie nights. I expressed anxieties without constantly weighing whether it was burdensome. I stretched the boundaries.

I wonder how exactly these boundaries even come to be. We’re constantly at-odds with caring, living, or loving more. Out of fear of burdening others, jinxing our luck, or not experiencing reciprocated energy, we restrain ourselves. We believe the lie that intimacy must be felt judiciously—that we should save unapologetic closeness for triumph or tragedy.

Rationing intimacy seems silly, but many of us are guilty of it. We crave intimacy, yet this craving is premised on starving; we wish for closeness because we’re so accustomed to maintaining distance, to calculating against these boundaries. But now, at a time in which we are obligated to maintain physical distance, this tendency to calculate closeness might be giving way to something else. You know, some say, “We didn’t know what we had ‘till it was gone. When things settle down, people will treat each other better.” Maybe there’s something to that, but I think there’s something else we ought to consider.

While we now face literal distance, our balancing act seems different. Expressing oneself doesn’t feel as risky: finally messaging a crush, lovely letters being written with careful hands, “how are you’s” that—despite maybe having similar shades of answers—feel genuinely curious. There is less holding back; less fear of burden, or of feeling too close. While social distancing, closeness feels easier.

All these mental calculations come about in different ways, perhaps in setting boundaries that promote living alone for “personal space,” or in beginning to push those boundaries while self-isolating during a pandemic. But instead of pushing against them, maybe these calculations could be solved once and for all; I imagine this, perhaps, in walking along a lonely beach, on the brink of sunset, feet squishing on the soft sand, as the water ebbs and flows beneath them.

So often, the energy put into questioning how much emotion to express feels overwhelming. The mental calculations feel like erratic surges, pulling you into waves that feel both familiar out of habit, and wrong out of practice. You know these waves, these boundaries limit you.

I find that the ebbs and flows of the waves are worth riding instead. Letting ourselves go with the waves, instead of constantly wondering which tide is most likely to keep us within the bounds of familiarity. Relinquishing ourselves from these boundaries, once and for all, might actually show us how we’ve all been grappling with the same calculations this whole time.

The beach might not be so lonely after all.

Prem Thakker is a junior at Columbia College studying history. He hopes that we can keep trying to embrace being closer and expressing ourselves more intimately. He would love to hear if you resonated with any of this. You can talk to him at Colon, Closed Parentheses runs alternate Mondays.

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