“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”


Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.


Why We Love Sorrow

I generally avoid crying in public. By “avoid,” I mean I will chew my cheeks and tongue raw, imagine professors in old-fashioned bathing costumes, resort to sharp sarcasm–do almost anything–to pull myself out of emotion’s current. But a few days ago, I shamelessly cried in a theatre full of friends and strangers.

My university’s theatre department put on A Piece of My Heart, a play that tells the stories of women who served in Vietnam. I, along with the rest of the audience, felt a piece of my own heart break off in the dark theatre on Friday night. And as I slowly wandered home through ice and snow, my breath rolling up like a fog machine’s expulsions toward stars like spotlights, I wondered what on earth induced me to stand in a crowded theatre, clapping and sobbing unashamedly.

Why do we love sorrow? Nicholas Sparks makes bank by killing off characters. The Fault in Our Stars raked in millions. Try imagining Harry Potter without all those beloved characters suffering and dying. Why do we cling to things that rip our hearts out?

I don’t claim to know the deep secrets of humanity, but here are some thoughts:


Loneliness is normal. We live surrounded by people, and, pressed into the crowds, we feel inexplicably alone. People ask, “How are you?” and we say, “Fine” even when we’re not. In the midst of sorrow or pain, we fight a lonely battle without support or camaraderie. Stories of others’ struggles remind us that we are not alone. Though I’ve never worn military fatigues or nursed battle wounds, I identify with the emotions portrayed in this play. Stress. Overwhelming odds. The conviction that the struggle will never end. The expectation of relief–an expectation constantly disappointed by one more emergency, one more demand.


Happiness makes us suspicious. Faerie-tales end with “happily ever after,” but life doesn’t, and we all learned this early. “You can’t have everything you want,” our mothers told us. “C’est la vie,” the cliched phrase reminds us. Stories of happy people succeeding provide some relief from real life. Stories of struggling people fighting against horrible odds, failing and getting up again, making bad decisions and living with them, forcing every step–those stories resonate with us. Those stories echo with a truth we’ve grown unaccustomed to and thirsty for in this world of airbrushed models and too-bright advertisements.


We all want a voice. In a society lived online through Facebook statuses, Tweets, and blogposts, it seems like everyone has a voice. And in so much noise, individual voices disappear. When our hearts are breaking, we post about our photogenic Starbucks breakfasts. Keeping track of our likes and reblogs teaches us that humour is rewarded and authenticity ignored. Good stories of grief and pain give a voice to our own feelings when we feel muzzled by the world. Fiction tells common truth more eloquently and accurately than we can on our own.

And in the end, despite the artificial smoke from the fog machine clogging my lungs, the cramps in my legs from sitting still too long, and the ache behind my eyes from flashing lights, my soul stirs at the beautiful portrayal of truths society likes to shy away from and my heart pounds in rhythm with heartbeats of strangers, friends, acquaintances, professors. For a few hours, we shared an experience–shared sorrow and joy, rage and hope–and that shared emotion is something comedy never offers.