Suddenly, I’m having intimate conversations with (nearly) total strangers and I’m learning new things about myself in the process. Or, maybe, I am learning things about myself that they recognized a long, long time ago and never mentioned to me.
Plus or minus a few years and a couple of Covid delays, I’m marking the 50th anniversaries of high school and college, which seem like yesterday and forever ago in the same flashback.
One of my high-school classmates puts together a reunion lunch every month so we can compare our “memories” and I’ve traveled down to the University of Illinois twice in the past eight months to share “memories” with old friends from The Daily Illini. I’m putting “memories” in quotes here because I remember almost none of the things they talk about.
Well, there are a few snippets here and there, more from college than from high school, but I begin to wonder if I actually went to the same school as they did or, maybe, this is a diabolical gaslighting plot to convince me I once had a life. What if they’re just telling me all these things to convince me I was there and merely forgot all about it? When will they reveal the trap in this impossibly long con?
To be fair, this is five decades ago and a lot of stuff has happened since then. Grade school friends are supplanted by high school friends, college friends, whoever our friends are at whatever job we have at the moment, the parents of our children’s friends, the group at the synagogue, neighbors, new neighbors and, ultimately, all the people at the assisted living center.
We stay connected to few dozen people for a decade or two and maybe hold onto a handful for a lifetime. With most people, though, we’re sharing a moment. That moment might be measured in years, but it’s still a potted plant without permanent roots. We move on to new soil, as do they, and the relationships begin anew.
It’s a totally natural progression. Every relationship is built on some foundation and, when the foundation shifts, the relationship needs a new anchor. Maybe we end up in the bowling league with our kids’ friends’ parents and we stay connected through our love of rented shoes. Perhaps we end up in a movie group with a few co-workers and that cohort survives after the latest round of “rightsizing.” More commonly, the relationship disappears as its foundational supports are removed.
In a very real sense, all the people I’m reconnecting with are strangers. We knew each other once, then fell out of touch, and we spend a lot of time asking each other, essentially, who we are, or were, way back when. There’s a dead spot in my brain where I should be remembering more about other people or more about the times we shared, so I need a ton of reminders.
Meanwhile, as disconcerting as it is to realize how much I’ve forgotten, and how much I missed while I was with these people a half century ago, there is something truly glorious in these gatherings.
Even for those of us who have become strangers over the ensuing years, we come to the table as friends, as people who’ve shared a formative experience and recognize our common history. There is an assumption of good will and shared values that creates a foundation for our conversation. We don’t share all the same views, of course, but we walk in with an openness to hear what the other has to say and to treat them with kindness. We want to hear about their lives and their stories more than we want to drone on about our own.
Of course, we could do the same thing with any stranger we meet. We aren’t going to have the same views or priorities, but there is undoubtedly some formative experience we have in common, some starting point to launch a friendly and respectful conversation. What if we walked in with an openness to hear what those strangers have to say and we treated them with kindness? What if we wanted to hear about their lives and their stories more than we wanted to drone on about our own?
And what if we didn’t let another 50 years go by before we chose to approach all our strangers that way?
Before you head out to start up a conversation with someone you’ve never met, be sure to click here to subscribe to Dad Writes. Don’t be a stranger.
Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.