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Dining Alone, Together

Roy Esaki

As humans, we’re all social animals, but at MIT, we’re really really busy social animals -- if we’re even still human. Consequently, the logistics of our schedules often deprive us of many opportunities for social interaction. And among the most tragic, but often necessary, casualties of a hectic life is mealtime. Though not without its pensive sadness, there’s something rather therapeutic and valuable about the process, and lifestyle, of dining alone.

Granted, many students with convenient living and dining situations have never had a need, let alone inclination, to eat alone. Actually, because there are enough of such people, both here and in larger society, there’s a strong stigma associated with eating alone. It’s the habit of a lonely, antisocial, extra-nerdy, friendless recluse, a sad and silent testimony to one’s loneliness in a chaotic and obscure world -- sort of like the life of an MIT student.

But this stigma, like most stereotypes, is hardly universally or consistently true, though it has a clear basis in reality. The scattered schedules and physical distribution of dining establishments, let alone one’s schedule, makes solitary dining much more likely than eating in groups. It’s a lot more convenient and efficient, if not necessary, to eat alone, be it for lunch bought at the food truck or for dinner at Lobdell. You’re completely free and independent, untethered by any social obligation whatsoever -- free to do problem sets while eating, at liberty to ignore table etiquette and put your elbows on the table, allowed to stand up and leave at your own discretion. There’s always the tendency for continual isolation to cause one to ignore dining manners, but otherwise, the freedom is quite useful during hectic times.

And with this freedom comes a really valuable mental freedom, something that’s often neglected in the routine cycle of classwork and active avoidance thereof. Dining in Lobdell during dinner hours, you look around and see so many solitary individuals, sitting there like weather-worn rafts drifting along a darkened sea. Perhaps you’re a raft yourself, wordlessly floating, reading this paper perhaps, while unknown conversations drone on all around you. If you really want to, you could even think about how alone you are, but you can think about anything you want. Fret about that test if you wish, but you can also quietly reflect on where you are in life, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there. Or chew over what could be done to improve yourself, your life, and the lives of those around you.

You could also look around at the other solitary diners (don’t stare too long, lest it makes them feel uncomfortable), and ponder about what they’re could be thinking of as they solemnly sip their minestrone. Though the specifics may differ, they probably have concerns analogous to yours: the upcoming tournament, how to raise your grade in that one class, how in the world all that absurd amount of crud is going to get done by Friday. Or maybe, if they read this column, they’re looking at you, contemplating what you’re thinking about.

These pensive, almost meditative, reflections aren’t possible when you’re busy bantering and chaffing with others during the meal. Social interaction should be encouraged, of course, and lunch or dinner can, and should, provide occasions to bring people together. For those who are, by choice or circumstances, forced to enjoy their own company at times, though, it’s nice to remember that it’s an opportunity to digest our lives and that one really isn’t alone in dining alone.