Columns, Opinions

Friedman ’19: The importance of time to oneself

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, September 14, 2017

When I think back on my summer, some of my favorite moments were spent alone. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed my daily one-hour commute in Los Angeles traffic from the San Fernando Valley to Pasadena. My falsetto dramatically improved with all of the R&B music that I sang along to in the car, and my knowledge of world events expanded as I listened to KCRW, L.A.’s local affiliate of National Public Radio, whenever I became tired of hearing my own voice. I attended a Dodgers game by myself after my date bailed on me and my grandfather decided he was too tired to attend ­­— even though, to add insult to injury, he was able to fly all the way to Chicago to attend a World Series game last fall. It turns out a solo baseball game is actually a very pleasant experience. There was no obligation on my part to entertain a friend, so I could pay full attention to the best team in baseball and enjoy my garlic fries without sharing.

But, despite the allure of the garlic fries, I have to say my favorite activity from the summer was single sculling in Marina Del Rey at 6 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday. As an 18-month member of the Brown crew team, I usually don’t get the luxury of training and rowing by myself — most collegiate programs exclusively row eight-person boats — but the summer afforded me the opportunity to take my rowing schedule into my own hands and occasionally stop to enjoy the sunrise, a luxury which I am almost never afforded during practices on the Seekonk River.

By contrast, the predominant sentiment on college campuses stigmatizes the act of voluntarily spending one’s time alone. Perhaps due to the emphasis on socializing, parties and participating in extracurriculars, students are generally wary of doing anything alone or presenting an image of social isolation. Or perhaps college students are affected by — and contribute to — the larger societal “mistrust of solitude”  that is often attributed to the rise of smartphones, which is making us into a more group-oriented society. In fact, in a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia, a quarter of surveyed women and two-thirds of surveyed men “chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.” Granted, I see plenty of people studying alone at coffee shops and libraries; this is well-established student behavior, but sometimes I become self-conscious of my own social life when I find myself eating alone in the Ratty. Is eating alone — or, for that matter, exploring Providence alone, attending sporting events alone or just being alone — considered a problem? If it is, it shouldn’t be.

There are, in fact, established therapeutic benefits to spending time alone. Although their advantages have not been formally quantified, moments of social isolation can help people “out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting,” according to California State Polytechnic University at Pomona Associate Professor of Sociology Jack Fong.  This insight extends the previous “surrender and catch” theory put forth by sociologist Kurt Wolff in 1984 that suggests that time alone can allow a person to embrace a worldview of epistemological relativism — in simpler terms, the idea that knowledge is relative to time, place, society and culture.  Whether epistemological relativism is the correct approach to knowledge remains up for debate, but this idea of valuing social isolation is embraced by scholars outside of sociology as well; indeed, one of the preeminent American novelists of our time, Jonathan Franzen, even published a series of essays called “How to Be Alone” in 2003.

On an even deeper level, isolation allows us to practice introspection. Introspection in turn allows us to create an identity that is built on something internal rather than the external identity-markers, brands and group associations on which we increasingly rely. In an era when our personal brands broadcasted via Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Pinterest and other platforms are dominating our personal lives, it is worth considering the authenticity of one’s own brand — and what better way to do that than to reserve a few minutes of each day for oneself?

I can’t say that through my time alone this summer, I have teased out the fine nuances of my own interests and identity. I can’t even say that I chose to spend time alone voluntarily — most of the time, I was simply left high and dry by others. But I ended up enjoying it. I can safely say that my time alone has allowed me to feel substantially more comfortable with myself in the context of my generation and society at large. I knew with complete certainty that when I took out my single rowing shell into Marina Del Rey at 6 a.m., I truly wanted to be there. That feeling of solitude is worth more than many of us think.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at andrew_friedman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.