Returning back to campus this Fall semester has led me to think a lot about strangers and the way we interact with them.
Consider how many people you pass by each day as you walk to campus and from building-to-building between classes. All you get of these people are infinitesimally small glimpses into their lives. You may catch the tail end of a dramatic story being shared between two best friends, hear the laughter following the punchline of a joke you didn’t hear, or glimpse a couple sharing a moment. Downtown Toronto always seems to be in motion. There’s a lot of busy people canvassing the city making their way through their day.
Before I got my driver’s license and could drive, I would take the bus and think about how being in a bus full of people was like being in a bus filled with potential friends. It’s cheesy, but the space between you and a stranger is only a few sentences. If you think about it, the word itself that we use to describe people we don’t know–‘strangers’– has the root word “strange” in it. The first definition of “strange” on Google is, “unusual or surprising in a way that is unsettling or hard to understand.” Isn’t it telling how even in our use of language we predispose ourselves to keep distance between ourselves and people we don’t know?
How many people do you see around campus that you don’t know or haven’t talked to but you keep crossing paths with them? Do you ever think of what it would be like to know them on a more personal level?
I think a perfect metaphor for this phenomenon is the subway. You pass by the throbs of people that are all trying to get someplace in particular and you co-exist together for a short span of time. Some people you only witness for a few seconds and others for a half an hour while you share the same subway carriage. My favourite moment on the subway is sitting in a train and having another train, travelling in the opposite direction, pass by. You can catch a quick glimpse of everyone else in the passing carriages, but the trains are travelling so fast that you can’t fully process who you saw.
On the walk to Queen’s Park station, there’s a homeless man who will sometimes lie on top of the vents where gusts of hot air blow through. During rush hour, masses of people will walk by him, curled up on the vent. This observation is not surprising or extraordinarily special- what else are the people meant to do besides walk by? Although this behaviour is considered normal now, there must have been a point in time where it became the norm to walk by someone in need and accept their fate to be out of your own hands. Somehow, at some point in time, we started to believe that this is just how life is. We can look at the Canadian system as an example of societal shift of belief. Prior to the 1980s (after which the focus shifted to business from social obligation), the Canadian government was highly focused on finding housing solutions for those without homes to the point where the term “homeless” itself was not everyday language. The term “transient” instead was used.
Whether it was a belief that came with getting older, or a paradigm shift that took place on a bigger societal scale at some point in history, this now solidified belief that there are some people that simply can’t be helped was not pre-existing.
The point I’m trying to make with the above example is that although some beliefs or perspectives may seem like they are set in stone, most seemingly widespread perspectives originate from some starting point. I wonder where the starting point for that defamiliarization from strangers takes place. And if we’d be remiss to keep it that way.