Starting Fresh

When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.

PC: Margot Pandone

There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.

Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.

I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.

Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.

A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.

My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.

As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.


The Longest Loneliness

PC: Nathan Anderson

I have felt lonely all my life. Lonely as an objective feeling, not necessarily good or bad, happy or sad. Loneliness is a part of who I am and will be, perhaps forever. I decided to reflect on my loneliness this week because it has been contributing to some deep depression and anxiety, and writing usually helps me practice mindfulness toward my own experience. So I write this week not to complain or whine (though I apologize if it seems that way) but to contemplate what loneliness really is, and wonder when we might use it to help ourselves and others. 

Yes, there have been times in my life when loneliness dug at me like a metal spoon scraping the bottom of an empty ice cream tub. I saw my classmates, teammates, and peers develop close relationships with people whom they could essentially treat like siblings. My own sister has been best friends with 3 people since middle school, one since kindergarten. I certainly have experienced deep friendship at times, yet have never truly shaken the feeling of being alone, isolated. 

There have also been moments when loneliness has made me feel special and distinct. When I was little, my parents worried that I wouldn’t recognize how smart I was. They feared I would fall into complacency with school work and sports and Girl Scouts and whatever else was on the docket, only to find myself in the throws of mediocrity. So they reminded me constantly of how smart and talented I was, compared to my classmates. They spoke about me being the best softball player on the team as if it were fact. I began to believe that my loneliness was a sign of greatness: if I were so much more talented, intelligent, and “better” than everyone around me, no wonder they didn’t understand me! I was too much for them. 

As I grew this constant distinguishing caused some deep harm. I became a perfectionist. Anytime I performed below expected on a test or in a game, my instinct was to find an excuse. My parents helped me assuage the feelings of failure. “You weren’t feeling well today,” “that was a fluke,” “its because she’s jealous of you, that’s why she graded you harder.” I found my middle school self drowning from feeling both extremely confident that I was smarter, more talented, more perfect, and terrified that I would mess up and someone else would experience the glory of getting the highest grade on a history test. And I was lonely. So unbelievably lonely. 

I used to dream that one of the most popular boys in our class would talk to me. It wasn’t a particularly sensual fantasy- in fact, what I wanted most was to be welcomed in to his friend group by association. I imagined myself standing next to him, listening to one of his friends tell a joke, and laughing, really laughing. That fantasy has never completely left my consciousness. In my quest to constantly prove my parents’ opinions of me (and my own) as a unique, brilliant young person, I found deep down a desire to simply be the same as everyone else. 

I believe everyone experiences some form of loneliness throughout our lives. The popular movie motif of the “nerd” sitting by themselves eating lunch in the bathroom feels relatable to most of us in one way or another. And yet, I believe loneliness differs from feeling “alone.”

We combat loneliness by connecting with other people. We join clubs, play on sports teams, go to church or temple or the YMCA. We join a community. Feeling alone, even among members of a community, is not so easily shaken. The “aloneness”, I believe, stems from a fear or uncertainty about one’s purpose, namely, that perhaps there isn’t one. 

Have you ever felt as thought the more accomplishments you add to your resume, the more limited you are in your ability to find purpose? That sounds and is coming from a very privileged position, one I feel the need to honestly assert. Feeling alone has driven me toward the work I do now, supporting students in their quest to find community and to state their purpose in this world (hopefully combining their skills and interests). If I’m honest, I myself have not yet fully realized my own purpose. Feeling alone in the world may posit a real challenge, but the benefit is the motivation it sustains in me to keep working. I may not demonstrate my appreciation for every person I meet that teaches me something extremely well (and given the right mindset, this can be every person), but I do appreciate them inside. I cherish connection because it does help me feel the slightest bit less lonely and for a moment, not completely alone in the world.

I know many of us feel alone, and it can be near impossible to discuss, given our circumstances. It is my hope that the quest to end loneliness by seeking out community also moves us toward recognizing how not to be alone, or at least, that being alone does not have to freeze us.