By Marina Yoshimura
Sometimes, other people help set our priorities and keep our values in check. Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness helped me with this process. Our checklist, friendships and moments that stay with us are often ones we least expect or plan. They help us question what we actually want from life. Keegan demonstrates how we can—and should—pursue ikigai, "a reason for living,” no matter what society says. The questions we ask ourselves can help us find that. It’s our responsibility. It’s our life.
Life often revolves around questions we ask. What courses will I take? Whom will I meet? Will I make it here? What will I leave behind? In August 2017, my junior year, I found myself in a classroom at William Harkness Hall at Yale College for orientation, surrounded by brilliant peers. The nine-month Yale Visiting International Student Program would start in a few days. Our professors, program coordinators, and the English Department came to speak to us. Together, we read an essay called “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, a prolific writer and Yale student. The essay was honest and real; I wanted to ask her questions. But after reading her essay, we found out that she had died in a car accident five days after graduating from Yale in 2012. An orientation is “a program of introduction for newcomers to a college or other institution.” But this orientation made me think of the endgame.
Two years after reading her essay, I turned to The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of Keegan’s essays and stories, because I had unanswered questions about life. She questions the status quo, and writes about them, too, compelling us to think about the choices we make. Her voice anchors me, especially after a night of aimless networking and ample business cards. Perhaps our current notions of success are outdated. Society rewards individual prestige and connections—but what about our collective responsibility? Whether companies understand or care about climate change, or poverty, or injustice is questionable. Corporate illusion is one of the issues she laments. “Let’s make something happen to this world,” Keegan writes in a guest column for The Yale Daily News. John McDermott of the Financial Times writes, “Keegan felt the explanation for the Yalies’ choice went beyond pay at JP Morgan or McKinsey.” If our calling is to work at consulting firms, then we should by all means pursue that. But if we apply because it’s a template that many of us have used, then we should think twice. What do we want to be remembered for? The people we loved, the causes we championed? Inheritance? Let’s think about that.
What would my kids ask me, and how would I answer them? What would I teach them? Be grateful. Eat your greens. Get sleep. Make your bed. Time is money. Nice doesn’t win. The list continues. And then, my kids would ask me questions I would could barely answer:
To which I would answer, “I don’t know—ask Alexa.”
Then they’d ask, “Alexa—what’s power?”
Alexa would respond, “Power is me.”
Kids are our future. How would I raise them? I don’t know. But what I think we should do is let them ask questions. We should let them learn. What we shouldn’t do is screw them up.
The Opposite of Loneliness serves as a diagnosis for the jaded and a warning for the naïve. Her message hits our conscience. What’s right and wrong? She calls on us to pursue what we stand and live for. In “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” she said, "I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear-- at twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, we might forget" (200). But if we forget, we lose ourselves. How much of ourselves will we compromise to be “successful”? Will it be worth it, or will we suffer a Pyrrhic victory?
We can’t un-live moments, but we can relive them. Keegan’s story inspires us to relive some of her moments vicariously, which serve as lessons for our lives. She challenges us to be courageous, to challenge norms and pursue love and justice no matter what society tells us to do (or not to do). “Sometimes I think about what it would be like if there was actual peace,” Keegan writes in “Song for the Special” (207). When we are no longer disappointed in disappointment, when a lucrative opportunity comes our way, or when power becomes more attractive than the soul—we might want to take Keegan’s words to heart.
It’s our life. The questions we ask ourselves matter. The Opposite of Loneliness prompts ample questions. We can learn from Keegan by reliving her moments vicariously. What will we choose to give? When I think of the word give, I think about my future kids: What do I teach them? How would I answer their questions? Keegan’s book is a wake-up call for many of us. While I wouldn’t give anyone advice here, I believe that we should base our life on the questions we ask and the values we stand for. Thank you, Marina Keegan, for asking questions that need to be asked.