Friday, October 29, 2021

Familiar Strangers


There are many people who I don't know, but with whom I regularly come into contact. I think of them as familiar strangers. Perhaps I pass them on the sidewalk or the hallways of my building. Maybe they're a security guard in a place I like to go or drive the bus I regularly take. My instinct is to begin to acknowledge them with a friendly, "Hello." Even a smile or a nod of recognition would do. But unless they look up to make eye-contact with me, I pass on by without saying or doing anything beyond anticipating that the contact. I suppose you can say that I'm waiting for consent to engage.

I don't like using the word "consent" in this context because, in fact, eye-contact is really not a clear affirmation of consent, but if they do look up at me, I'll at least smile. I want them to know that I see them, that I've seen them, that it's okay, that I welcome them. Most of the time, that other person smiles back, says, "Good morning," and that is the beginning of one of those small social bonds that makes, for me, life a little less anonymous, more familiar and pleasant. 

There are many, however, who never look up no matter how long I wait for their eye-contact. I just want to be friendly, but I shouldn't judge them. I know that for many the effort of even that eye-contact is too much. Or perhaps to be more precise, it's not the one-off eye-contact that exhausts them or makes them anxious, but the prospect that if they do it once, they'll be expected to do it every day. It might even escalate from polite smiles to a daily grind of verbal greetings and small talk: HowareyouIamfineLookslikerainArethosenewshoes . . .

I'm disinclined to impose myself on others and I know that even eye-contact can be an imposition to some, even as there is a part of me that feels like it would be rude to not make eye-contact with a fellow human I see so regularly. So I wait for it without insisting upon it.

There was a time when the refusal (as I framed it) of eye-contact left me feeling slightly abused or ignored, even offended. What a jerk! I'd think as they passed me by with their eyes on the ground in front of them. How rude! But who am I to force myself on others? Who am I to insult them, even in my own mind, when I don't know anything about them other than the fact that we are regularly in the same place at the same time? Perhaps I remind them of someone who once hurt them. Maybe they are painfully introverted. They could be suffering from mental illness like anxiety or depression, which are both all too common. They could be grieving or calculating or thinking a great thought that will one day transform the world.

That said, I'm sometimes with people who don't have my scruples about imposing themselves. My wife, for instance, will not only smile, but call out to these people, "Good morning!" or even more mortifying to me, "I love your jacket!" It puts me on edge, but most of the time, these familiar strangers respond as my wife hopes, often even with seeming joy at being singled out for notice. Sometimes we all stand there on the sidewalk for a time chatting beyond the confines of small talk. Occasionally, those people upon whom she has imposed herself become, with time, actual friends. 

Living in a world with other people is a complicated and infinitely nuanced thing. As my wife will point out, she first met many of her best friends by doing what I would consider imposing herself on them. Still, I wait for the eye-contact. And I know that even that is too forward for some people -- I've seen the fear in their eyes when they make the mistake of looking up and find me waiting for them.

We can't go through life imposing ourselves on one another nor is it healthy to ignore one another. Most humans are born with a drive to connect, but what that means is clearly different for each of us. My friendly gesture can be another person's hostile act. There are those for whom this whole discussion is an outrage: Here we go again with the political correctness! Why can't we just be natural with one another? There are others who feel, perhaps, that I haven't taken it far enough. 

I wonder about all the people who have been intimidated by me because they sensed my waiting for their eye-contact. I wonder likewise about all those best friends I have allowed to pass unknown, who would have been thrilled to have the excuse of a broad compliment or a greeting to connect with me. And then, I must wonder about the world of relationships beyond the relative superficiality of those I have with familiar strangers. 

This is the real work of humanity: connecting. Staying connected. Re-connecting. If we were electrical appliances we would just plug-in to those standardized sockets and be done with it, but of course, are not appliances, nor are we standardized. We are born with a unique shape. Life makes us even more uniquely shaped. If we are to connect with one another as equal and free humans we must turn ourselves round and round with each new person the way a child does when trying to fit a piece into a puzzle. It will be both uncomfortable and rewarding. We will often fail to make the kind of connection we seek, but we must also know to never give up because without connection life is colorless, hostile, and without meaning. 

That is the work we do in preschool, but it is also the work we do throughout life. 

I will not impose myself on you, but know that I'm always waiting for eye-contact. Also know that if you call out to me, I will not ignore you. From there, I hope, we can figure it out because that, I think, is what we're here to do.

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