In the months leading up to going abroad to Spain, I was completely terrified. Not of being in a new place, or settling into a new way of learning, or even keeping kosher in a country pretty much made out of ham. No, I was scared out of my mind of dealing with the daunting prospect of keeping in touch.
I remember boarding my flight from Philadelphia to Madrid and feeling so physically numb I could barely compose the text messages that I kept sending until the flight attendant made me shut off my phone. I remember realizing halfway through the flight how long it would be before I’d even be moving through the same time of day as the people I love, let alone the same physical space. It didn’t help that, being a sophomore, I knew all of my friends would still be together at Wes.
For some, it may be obvious that being far away from loved ones doesn’t necessarily mean you should keep in perfect contact with them. Those people are wiser than I am, and they shouldn’t bother reading this. But I can’t be the only college student who, when the slightest thing goes wrong, flees to Olin or Usdan or my roommate’s bed in a desperate quest for loving words (or cuddles) from a friend. And I can’t be the first kid abroad to freak out at the possibility of not having access to that comfort at any given moment.
Luckily, I thought, I have access to the glorious thing that is social media. I began to develop a self-comfort mantra without even realizing it: “Facebook. Twitter. Skype. Facebook. Twitter. Skype.” But the first time I Skyped from Madrid with a friend at Wes, I felt immediately crushed and unsatisfied upon hanging up, even though it was amazing to have a face-to-face conversation with someone I loved.
Since then, I’ve had long Skype dates with friends during which I’ve talked about how happy I am here (true) and how thankful I am to be away from Wesleyan for a semester (also true), but I have then terrified them by bursting into tears when the time came to click the little button that makes my nearest and dearest disappear from my computer screen.
I recently talked to my very wise mother, who is a social worker, about “being there” for people. She talked about the emphasis we put on making ourselves available for other people’s needs and how it sometimes keeps us from discovering internal resources that allow us to be there for ourselves. When I think about it, though I’ve had lonely moments here, I shed many more tears last semester on campus while surrounded by wonderful, caring friends. And more importantly, I’ve had significantly fewer lonely moments since I took a step back from the social media that I once thought would be getting me through my hardest times.
Skype is great. Being in touch is great. Maintaining connections is great. But spending a week coordinating a time to Skype? Not being able to hug goodbye when you don’t know when you’ll see that familiar face again? It took me a carefree week of traveling with minimal Wi-Fi access to realize how much happier and healthier I am without the constant Facebook checks and the late-night waiting for someone to sign onto Skype.
When I started this experience, it seemed to me that the best way to not miss people was to know all about what was going on in their lives and to talk to them as often as possible. But in the end it becomes less about missing people and more about missing out, and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is the most absurd feeling to have when abroad.
I do sometimes feel the strangeness of not being there for my friends’ performances, midterm meltdowns, and hookup dramas. But by now, I have to put effort into really caring that WesFest just happened or being mad that I’m missing Kendrick Lamar for Spring Fling (okay, I actually am mad about that one). And I’ve decided that sophomore spring is actually the best time to go abroad—thank you, College of Letters. Since I got here, I have been thankful for the opportunity to have new experiences and a semester away from college. I never previously thought to give thanks for the opportunity to have time away from other people and to be there for myself.
It’s true about abroad, it’s true about college, and it’s true about having new experiences anywhere. We forget that wanting to be with someone all day long doesn’t mean you should actually be with them all day long, every single day. We forget that knowing every detail of someone else’s life isn’t worth missing out on the details of our own lives. We forget to be alone until we have to, and then we have no idea what to do.
Alone time means you can pick your nose or sing as loud as you want (although, truthfully, I do that to get revenge on my loud neighbors). It means you can immerse yourself in a new place and do what you want without having to think about how it relates to other people. But most importantly, at least for me, it means you have to pull yourself through the fears and anxieties that other people can never really heal.
I still keep Skype up on my computer during the evening. I’m still a Facebook addict. I still want to know what’s going on in my friends’ lives and want to see their smiles from time to time. But I don’t feel the old anxiety about maintaining relationships that, if they are as strong as I think, will be waiting for me when I return.