A line of students wander into the wilderness behind a 30-year-old man with an orange mustache.
They follow him into the forest, stepping over roots and snagging their shirts on haphazard thorns. They don’t say anything as they walk, silence being both the beginning and unwitting end of their journey. But what they do know is that they aren’t excited to be stepping over the dewey brush of the woods--they are simply intrigued. The weather is ideal, the sun is shining, and the happy comings and goings of the camp behind them are a stark contrast to their journey into solitude.
The day is Friday, Sept. 8th and it is 10 a.m. when Cameron Danger Strittmatter leads them into the thicket with the foreboding command: say nothing, only follow. His session is called “Solitude.”
“Solitude” is something atypical to what’s expected of a man who barges into a room and yells “Greetings, Peasants.” He’s eccentric, but not Gatsby-eccentric, because he is never completely serious, which is why the students are walking through the woods, eager to follow, though a little confused. When he stops and faces the line of students he opens his personal notebook and begins to speak from the heart.
“It’s a lie, the saying that when you stare into the void, it stares back into you,” Stritmatter said a few months later in an interview, discussing his session. “I think the void is not the end. It’s there, but deeper than the void is the thing that made it. The truth of your single-ness in this life - that you are just you, and that you will never be a part of the people you love, no matter how hard you want to be them.”
In a world where loneliness is described by Morgan Freeman as one of the “greatest epidemics of our time,” Cameron’s talk at Fall Retreat may sound counterintuitive.
Suicide is in the top ten leading causes of death for adult men according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In America, someone attempts suicide every minute. Throughout the world approximately 2,000 people kill themselves everyday, according to College Degree Search in their study on depression in college campuses. New York City is identi ed as the number one city out of the 10 unhappiest metropolitan areas with a population greater than one million in America by Time magazine. And the rate of depression and suicide in college campuses in America is on the rise.
“There’s de nitely a stigma,” says Brianna Dennis McCrory, the President of the Counseling and Mental Health Center Student Organization and spokesperson for the Counseling and Mental Health Center for the University of Texas, Austin. “If you need to see a counselor, something’s wrong with you. That is one of the things we talked about when I was going through the education program, because as a general American culture we do have a fear of failure rather than learning from it.”
"The truth of your single-ness in this life - that you are just you, and that you will never be a part of the people you love, no matter how hard you want to be them.”
But there are physical representations of the problem all around her campus that make the scale of depression hard to ignore. Three years before McCrory stepped foot onto the campus a man shot and killed himself in Little eld Fountain, a prominent social gathering point for the university, located in the middle of the campus. Every year, UT has a moment of silence in remembrance of his death.
McCrory said there was a stabbing incident a year ago tied to mental health and depression that resulted in the serious injury of students.
“There are a lot of circumstances where students have depression,” she said. “We have a lot of students that have questions about the counseling center but a lot of them are just too afraid to come.”
Anna Hedgepeth, a recent graduate of Cornell university who grew up in Memphis, Tennesse experienced a culture shock of going to school on the East Coast.
Cornell University has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country. The student culture was competitive and radically different than Southern culture, causing her to struggle in her rst year.
“The types of students that end up going to Cornell are those that push themselves, are naturally competitive, and compare themselves to other people,” Hedgepeth said. “It’s both
a student led and student fed culture. It was almost like a badge of honor to stay up all night for three days in a row studying.”
During the pursuit of her degree she wrote a research paper on the idea that Cornell was the “suicide school.”
“I have an older brother that went to Cornell,” she said. “During his rst years there were the most suicides in a calendar year than there had been in a really long time.”
Hedgepeth said the university put up fences that were seven or eight feet tall so that people could not hop off the bridges her freshman year.
“It was a very visual reminder that this became an issue,” Hedgepeth said. “Now, all the bridges have these sturdy steel nets underneath that went in toward the later part of my college career.”
But Hedgepeth did not think loneliness was a school-speci c problem so much as a generational one perpetuated by technology and social media.
"Now, all the bridges have these sturdy steel nets underneath"
“Technology and social media has created a pseudo-connection and these fake realities of ‘look at how many people like what I’m doing. I have 130 likes on this Instagram post’ that we translate into ‘this is 130 people that are friends with me’, when that is just not true,” she said.
McCrory says social media is connected with positive psychology. If you go onto social media looking for validation instead of using it to relax and look at things that aid emotional health, it will have the opposite effect.
“Personalities are always changing over time,” says McCrory. “When you’re in a new environment with all new people, that’s when you get a chance to gure yourself out. This leads to feelings where people don’t know who they are, and they feel lost, but it’s also Social Media. It triggers more than others.”
And so, a young college in the heart of one of the loneliest cities in the world, in one of the most competitive and academically rigorous collegiate settings, retreats into the mountains for three days where a bundle of students wander into the wilderness behinda man promising them the keys to “solitude.” Or at least, they think he’ll tell them why it’s important.
Stritmatter said that, no matter what, you are alone,and people were designed to ourish within that.
“Allow yourself to be hurt. The second you realize you are a victim lean into the sword. If someone has offended you forgive them and nd a new way.”
Stritmatter quotes the poem “On Marriage” by the famous poet Khalil Gibran.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Physical proximity does not necessarily breed interpersonal relationships.
He argues that loneliness is inevitable and only when it is embraced can solitude truly begin to form. Because the truth is, America is facing an alarming surge in college campus suicide and depression, and the King’s College is no exception. Cameron believes it is a false assumption that physical proximity to one another breeds interpersonal proximity in New York, and that, in fact, it is the complete opposite.
“I think the subway is one of the best places to point out just how lonely we all are because you’re all right there and nobody is speaking. You mustn’t lock eyes. You mustn’t for a myriad of reasons.”
Dr. Anthony B. Bradley, an associate professor of Religious Studies, Chair of the program in Religious and Theological studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Human Flourishing, leans into this discussion on the King’s campus by stating that “busy-ness” is a contributing factor.
Students are focused on getting the perfect internship and making a name for themselves.
“They don’t make enough space for time for real connection,” he says. “People are so busy being busy they don’t make enough time for real connection and community, so when you add success pressure and plot to business, you get a lot of disconnection and loneliness.”
There are 8 million people in New York City. There are more than 100 colleges and almost 600,000 students. Yet the proximity is not enough--they have to somehow know how to navigate the bear that is loneliness they must all face alone.
“The opposite of loneliness isn’t accompaniment--its solitude...” said Stritmatter.