Campus Life advice

Inner circle and inner peace

Auntie Matter on hard times and friendship

If you have questions for Auntie Matter, please submit them at Questions have been edited for length, clarity, and content.

Dear Auntie Matter,
This semester is shaping up to be a tough one for me. I’m overwhelmed with work, but I can’t drop any of my obligations. My (now ex) girlfriend and I broke up about a month ago, and I’m feeling some effects from that. Also, my parents are divorcing. Basically, my life just sucks right now, and while I have great friends who I love to talk to, I don’t want to burden them, so I want to know how to handle this by myself, too.
— Seeking Stoicism

Dear Zeno,

I’m sorry you’re going through such a hard time. You can certainly improve your situation to some extent (or at least change your perspective on it), but I agree with your assessment that you will just have to deal with some difficulty in the foreseeable future. It seems like lots of bad news is coming unexpectedly, which is hard because you have to deal both with the surprise and the consequences of the surprise. You did not have time to prepare, practically or emotionally.

Auntie’s first thought is that insofar as you can take pleasure in being impressive in this situation, you should. As you have just been taught, we do not always have control over the circumstances of our lives, and one of the few pleasures in life that does not depend on external factors is the pride we can take in our own good conduct. Cut yourself slack where you need to, but maintain standards. Having a rough time is never an excuse for treating others poorly — if nothing else, uphold your standards with respect to your treatment of others. Take pride in your behavior. It is genuinely impressive to bear a difficult circumstance with grace.

This is not to say, however, that you should not accept help when appropriate. You mention not wanting to be a burden to your friends. It would be easy to say that you should not worry about burdening your friends, but that isn’t true. It’s a delicate balance. Try to rely on your friends where they can genuinely help you, when you need a distraction or advice, or when a specific favor would not be difficult for them but would make a great impact for you, but don’t make your troubles the entire content of your friendship. Try to take pleasure in your friends like you would at any other time.

Finally, some practical tips. Lower your expectations — you will likely not do as well this semester as you have done in previous semesters, and getting upset about it won’t help the situation. Similarly, you should take stock of what is most important and necessary for you to do, and do that first. Be willing to let other things slide. Try to focus on getting through the next day or week as opposed to obsessing over the entire situation — you cannot solve your breakup or your parents’ divorce, but you can make a to-do list for tomorrow. Try to keep up with your regular schedule insofar as you can — go to classes even if it doesn’t feel useful. Go to your clubs. Go to places where you will see other people: make this a priority. Of course, try to keep a regular schedule of eating, sleeping, and exercise. And finally, don’t let the bad things bleed into everything. If you are tempted to say, “I hate everything,” remind yourself that it is not true. This sort of statement is not just false but self-fulfilling, and it would not do in such a tough period to lose the things that are good because you began to hate them, too.

Good luck! The good news is, in the future, you will know you can survive a period like this when the next one comes up.

Dear Auntie Matter,
I’m a freshman, and I still don’t have any friends. At first, I thought it would be ok because no one has friends coming in, but it has been two months, and now I’m worried everyone else made friends and I missed the boat. Am I really out of luck here? What do I do?
— Friendless Freshman

Dear Freshman,

The short answer is no, you are not out of luck. Auntie believes you can still make friends, though it might require more effort now that the first few months of the semester have elapsed.

Why have you not made friends yet? It could be any number of reasons: for example, you’re so overwhelmed with adjusting to a new life and classwork that you haven’t made time, you don’t quite know how to make friends in a college setting, or you have just been unlucky in your attempts at friendship.  

The remedy is the same regardless of the cause: you will have to reach out to people you want to be your friends, and you will have to keep reaching out to them until you actually become friends.

First, how do you find potential friends? You could find them in classes. Simply strike up conversation with the people sitting nearby you, ask them about themselves, see if they want pset buddies. You could find them in clubs. It is never too late to join most clubs on campus; many accept new members all year round. You could talk to people in your dorm.

The key to fostering friendship is to stick around for — and participate in — conversations. If you seek friends you have common interests or goals with (e.g. pset partners, club members, or dormmates), then it helps you to have something to talk about right away.

Second, how do you turn potential friends into actual friends? You keep interacting with them. Your initial common interests will develop into a shared history of interactions, which gives you more and more to talk about.

A few words of caution: don’t force friendships. That is, don’t be too goal-oriented in your interactions with people; don’t insist that you want to be friends and worry so much about making friends that you alienate potential friends with your zealousness. Friendship will develop naturally as you converse and interact with people.  

Finally, there is no reason to fear that you will never make friends. Auntie has made new friends every year she has been at MIT, and she did not meet all of them, or even most of them, first semester freshman year.