Last week, I did something I had never done before at the College. I walked into Mission dining hall, swiped my ID card, got my food and sat down … alone. It’s not that I have never sat by myself in a dining hall; last year, every so often, I would have breakfast by myself, and if none of my friends were available for lunch, I would get Grab & Go and have lunch in my room. But last Tuesday was a little different.
I knew none of the people I usually had lunch with were available, and I didn’t have any pre-existing plans with other friends – so I naturally got in the Grab & Go line expecting to take lunch back to my room, log in to Hulu and enjoy a TV show. But a couple minutes after getting there, I seriously began craving something different. So feigning confidence, I left the line and ventured to Mission. I reassured myself as I walked down Mission Hill, thinking, “whatever, eating alone is no big deal; I did it all the time in high school and no one judged me.” I walked in, dropped my backpack in the lobby and walked halfway down the stairs to the end of the line. And then it hit me, that gripping sensation that everyone was judging me, that they all somehow thought I had no friends: social anxiety. I frantically texted some other friends asking if they wanted to join me for lunch – one had a lab at 1 p.m., the other had just gotten out of the shower. At that point, I was too embarrassed to continue the manhunt for someone to eat with and accepted the inevitable. The rest of the meal felt like a confused blur, I raced to get food and sit down in one of the side rooms, hoping no one would see me. While Whitmans’ has the bar for solitary diners, Mission only has tables – and I couldn’t face sitting at a whole table by myself.
Once I had found refuge in one of the side rooms, I took yet another precaution against looking like a loner. I pulled out my phone and tried to look like I was doing something that was so incredibly important that it required that I sit alone for the meal. This – or the plugged in earphones and the textbook in hand – seems to be the modus operandi of any Eph that is alone. And as I saw people who I vaguely knew siphon into the dining hall, I raced to clear my plate only having eaten a few bites. Finally, I left Mission and walked to my house as I texted my friends about the “absurd” solitary dining experience.
But as a few hours went by, I realized that what was absurd about lunch that day wasn’t that I had eaten alone but that I felt so uncomfortable in my own shoes. I couldn’t sit in a dining hall and eat a peaceful meal by myself because I thought the rest of the people there would judge me – that they would look at me and think, “who is that girl who has no friends?” I had let social anxiety dictate my fears, my preferences and ultimately, my actions.
The other night I was talking to a friend and recounting my experience. I expected her to laugh at me. Much to my chagrin, she questioned, “you’ve never eaten alone?” and then continued to tell me about how she ate alone almost regularly; in fact, to her, eating alone was the easiest way to make friends. I have always admired this friend of mine – she has an effervescent personality and knows what seems like everyone on campus. She explained that eating alone or rather, going to a dining hall alone without plans to eat with any particular person or set of people, could in fact be liberating – it allows her to either sit alone and listen to music or to ask to sit with a person or group of people she may not have known that well.
I have always considered myself to be confident in my own shoes and capable of adapting to new places or situations. But my solo lunch in Mission called into question that confidence. In truth, I have relied on a few incredibly strong friendships to guide most of my actions and decisions at Williams, and I realize now that this version of a Williams experience is stunted. So, if you haven’t already, cancel those plans with your closest friends and eat alone. You might realize some valuable things about yourself, or maybe, you’ll make some new acquaintances. No matter what, you will gain something from the experience like I have.