The skill and value of being alone

"Alone" is a pretty taboo word. People don't like it. They associate it with bad things: lonely, isolation and, of course, #foreveralone. For a while, I made those same connections. But in just this year, I've decided that spending time alone isn't all bad. It's actually a pretty valuable skill to hone. Now, I'm not saying that you should cut yourself off from any and all access to humankind. I merely suggest that you take some time, wherever and whenever, for yourself, and only yourself.

Over the last four years, various people confided in me the fact that they filled almost every minute of their lives with people and activities so as to avoid dealing with their own thoughts. It's puzzling to me why anyone would ever seek to avoid them. They're you! You're essentially avoiding yourself and, well, that's just plain rude.

Acknowledging my thoughts helped me to get to know myself better. It was only when I got to know myself that I could settle into myself and progress as a person. In those moments that were, by definition, alone, I was able to process my observations, my opinions and my feelings, in equally significant, yet vastly different ways.

Observations are easy: just don't get distracted. They're fairly uncontroversial. During my Duke career, I got really involved with photography. When I held my eye upon the viewfinder, counting the moments until the perfect shot would find my lens, I was able to see so much more than if I was merely a bystander. What I've found to be most interesting are how others observe each other observations. These past four years I specifically sectioned off breakfast as my alone time. And every morning I witnessed with keen interest the camaraderie amongst Penn Pavilion staff; not only do they care immensely for each other, but for each person who enters the door. Around me, some work, others gossip. I chose to watch, and I recommend it highly, as it allowed me to see beyond what most of us give ourselves the chance to see.

Opinions are a bit harder to form and solidify. When I came to Duke, I realized that some of the beliefs that I held onto were neither my own, nor they didn't fit into the bigger picture that I had imagined for myself. So, like many of us, I had a bit of an identity crisis. I didn't run from it, though. I took the time to reconfigure myself during the moments that were spent alone. I found a happy medium within my religion, where I was able to feel unconstrained, but still committed. I redefined my political ideology, and decided that I was, in fact, not a conservative, despite what my red roots had conditioned me to think. I redrew my career path, and I now see myself in defense, big law or Constitutional law. It's rather satisfying knowing who I am and what I want.

Emotions, however, are the most difficult to confront, especially the unpleasant ones. Recently, I returned from a late evening class, and I was sad for seemingly no reason. I could have ignored it and occupied myself by chasing laughs in Maxwell section's second floor alcove. But I didn't. I wanted to know why I felt the way I did so that I could address it and learn. I was able to reason with myself and climb out of the mood. It felt like a weight off of my shoulders.

But there have certainly been good feelings, too. Just the memories of the events of a perfect night put a lasting smile on my face. I silently rejoice for good grades. And nothing beat basking in the high of a big Duke basketball win.

The moments that I'll remember most from my Duke career are naturally those that I spent in good company: late night talks with my freshman year roommate, laughing in Maxwell's second floor alcove, high table, clubbing, road trips while at Oxford, and going crazy in Cameron until my voice departed and my feet numbed. And yet, I realize that transformative events went on behind the scenes, too. Some of the most defining moments of my Duke career happened when I was alone.

Who do you know best in this world? The logical answer would be yourself, but many of us don't answer it that way. If there's anyone you should get to know in this world, it's you. I found that when I was able to know myself, life became easier, and more fulfilling. We are on the verge of being real, functional adults, which, in itself, involves spending significant time on our own. We can't be afraid of it; we can't be afraid of who we are.

Kristen is a graduating senior. She studied political science, ethics and cultural anthropology. This is her third and final year photographing with The Chronicle.


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