The morning we graduated college, Marina Keegan declared her yearning for “the opposite of loneliness” in the commencement issue of the Yale Daily News. “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness,” she observed. “But if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” In the wake of her sudden death in a car accident days later, the piece spread to millions across the country and has prompted Simon and Schuster to publish a collection of her essays and stories earlier this month titled, fittingly, The Opposite of Loneliness.
I remember my first thought reading the column. Lovely phrase, Marina. But is there really no word for the “opposite of loneliness”? Yet she was a more masterful writer than I, and I do not believe that she would have subverted the English language for the cheap thrill of a frivolous phrase. The question slipped my mind when we said our last goodbyes, and it nags me no less as we approach the second anniversary of her death.
Marina gives us some guidance by describing not what the opposite of loneliness is, but rather what it is not. “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community,” she explains. “It’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s 4 a.m. and no one goes to bed.” The opposite of loneliness, she says, is not so fickle as a feeling, nor is it so static as a grouping, an arbitrary assembling of individuals. The opposite of loneliness is active, teleological even: committed to goals, longing in action.
The tone of the valedictory alongside the tragic circumstances of its fame calls to mind another famous panegyric, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and this ancient eulogy seems to have anticipated Marina’s longing. The orator begins in the same mode as Marina, exhorting the merits of action over words and deriding the imprecision of language. “I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not imperiled in the mouth of a single individual,” he protests. “For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth.”
Having laid out the stakes of his speech, Pericles arrives at the crux of his argument, commanding his grieving audience, “Take these [fallen soldiers] as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”
For Pericles, the source of happiness is freedom. By Marina’s measure, conversely, the font of misery is loneliness, and with typically uncommon honesty she admits, “This scares me. More than finding the right job or city or spouse—I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.” The scope of Marina’s worries in this line is quite limited, defensive rather than offensive, and unconcerned about future gain. Her fear is focused on the preservation of those institutions, traditions and goals in which she feels herself embedded.
And what is loneliness, then? At its core, is it not simply a perversion of freedom? Is loneliness any more than an emancipation so extreme and complete as to transcend all pretense of society—individualism unhinged? If so, this definition goes a long way in explaining the bewilderment of modern sociologists as to the source of the growing loneliness among Marina’s classmates and comrades, steeped in a culture that axiomatically exalts the individual and the atomic.
Those familiar with Marina’s political inclinations and activities will find it fitting that the great liberal Athenian leader answers her question in a word. The opposite of loneliness is citizenship, freedom nobly perfected, advanced by courage and sustained by love. It is community progressing, engaged not by the weak pursuit of feckless comfort, in all its poisonous subjectivism, but by a virtuous longing for truth and honor. In the words of Pericles, it is free citizens “who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.”
Marina draws a distinction, as does Pericles, between loneliness and being alone. She describes arriving to look for her friends, mistakenly, at an iconic, empty administrative building. She recalls, “I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.” In Yale’s empty, neo-gothic castles, she feels the presence of her forbears, whose company she shares by the mere fact of her citizenship within a storied tradition.
Pericles pursues the feeling further, beyond that un-loneliness perceived as one sits alone, into the valiant man’s same awareness even in the face of death. He traces happiness to freedom and freedom to valor, while Marina dreads the misery that stems from loneliness. Shall we therefore credit this perversion of freedom to the opposite of valor—that is, loneliness to cowardice—as we try to make sense of the good life as free human beings? I recall the column’s most widely shared passage:
“We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. […] What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we must not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
The lines struck a chord, not merely for the tragic irony of their exuberance, but also for what she and many of her readers viewed as their contemporaries’ frequent, cowardly march from college into uninspired, all-too-trodden career paths.
The paragraph echoes Marina’s own political activism. Lest readers forget, “The Opposite of Loneliness” was not the first time her writing achieved national notoriety. Months earlier, Marina had written a stinging invective against the increasing and outsized number of college seniors heading into finance and consulting for the New York Times. The piece and the paragraph above confront a popular anxiety than extends beyond the Ivy League: a generation that grew up with grade inflation, participation trophies, and awards for effort is for the first time facing the prospect of failure, and this blow to its collective ego has led it from imagination and passion into apathy and cowardice.
“To a man of spirit,” observes Pericles, “cowardice and disaster coming together are far more grievous than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and patriotism.”