Opinions, Column

Where Have all the Strangers Gone?

Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. I went to Nobadeer on the Fourth of July two summers ago (forgive me, Father, for I have sinned).

For those who are unfamiliar with Nobadeer, it is a beach on the island of Nantucket whose sand is the unstainable carpet upon which sloshy debauchery ensues every July 4th. Frequented by young adults from all over the East Coast, the scene is almost as abominable as it is fun (but don’t tell the fanACKtics that I said that).

The year is 2015, and I’m strutting onto Nobadeer feeling patriotic as s—t in my American flag one-piece when, all of a sudden, an ex-boyfriend from high school taps me on the back with a crew of his friends trailing behind him. Despite the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” running on replay in my head—”Hello darkness, my old friend”—I manage a round of awkward hellos and then move down the beach, confident that my daily surprise was out of the way.

Not so.

Throughout the rest of the day, I run into more friends from high school, a brother of a friend from high school, a whole slew of acquaintances from home, my cousin from Kentucky, and yet another ex-boyfriend. It is in these moments of near-suffocating interconnectedness that I wonder how the phrase “stranger danger” ever gained so much traction: where are the strangers, much less the ones to be afraid of?

In our highly connected world, it often seems that a perfect stranger is harder to come by than a Prince Charming. Nowhere has this feeling resonated more strongly with me than at Boston College.

It is no secret: BC is full of students from New England. And unlike the West Coast, Middle America, or the South, New England is highly compact. Black tracks and silver-red-blue flashes of Amtrak trains cut through stretches of Northeastern coastline and wilderness, connecting Northeastern states in free wi-fi harmony. One could drive for over 12 hours without leaving California, whereas some Northeasterners cross state lines just to get to work in the morning.

In some ways, this compactness is good. Having many friends in many places means having many mutual friends in many places, and who doesn’t like knowing a free bed upon which to crash? But when a striking 64 percent of the undergraduate student body is from the Northeast, it seems that one’s world is blanketed with free beds upon which to crash, rather than new, explorable terrain.

Let me paint a picture for you: you meet a new person in class. And by a new person I mean a new person. You’ve never heard her name, never seen it on a listserv. You’ve never even cut her in the Eagles salad line. Intrigued at the prospect of having met a stranger, you leave class with an unfamiliar flutter of excitement spreading its wings in your tummy.

Later that night you receive a friend request on Facebook from your new stranger-friend. While giving yourself a mental high five for having been impressive enough to warrant a friend request (a real badge of honor in an age where reaching out has become a faux-pas), you open the request. And then you see it: 20 mutual friends. Tentatively plucking the forbidden fruit as you have every time before, you click and begin reading names. Habitually, you appropriate your mutual friends’ personalities and character traits onto your new stranger-friend until he or she seems a stranger no more. The fluttering in your stomach subsides, and another mattress falls on your horizon.

Yet this need not be so. In our habit of assigning individuals an identity based solely on the identities of their associations, we condemn ourselves to live in a world that suffers under the illusion of the mutual friend. Mutual friends are just as indicative of a stranger’s identity as my left pinky toe is of my complete physical appearance (admittedly a bummer, as my left pinky toe is quite cute). By allowing somebody’s mutual friends to define our perception of their character, we become less inquisitive, less interested in finding out their real story under an incorrect assumption that the one we have fabricated on their behalf is sufficient. We fail to realize that, absent our invalid assignments and assumptions, these mutual friends are the enchanting strangers that we (or at least this writer) have come to miss in Chestnut Hill.

It is hard to say “hi” to a stranger. It is harder still to say “hi” to a stranger when we occupy what seems to be a stranger-less world. Yet hardest of all is to first recognize the strangers among us. This recognition is imperative to our understanding of the world. Strangers with whom we eventually get acquainted remind us of the hidden wonders that the world has to offer. And those who pass through our lives with identities unknown are sources of curiosity, reminding us to always look at the world with an inquisitive, childlike eye. Once adopted, these lenses allow us greater exposure to the world around us, affording us more diverse experiences, a larger web of connections, and a more comprehensive assessment of our place on this big blue-green planet. Therefore, we must change our ways to move in the direction of conversation rather than appropriation.

For only then can we hope to lift the duvets and pillows and mattresses that have come to whitewash our endlessly vibrant world.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor

September 25, 2016