I met a handsome stranger at a barbeque once. Now don’t go thinking you know where this is going. He remained a stranger. There was a little magnetism about him that drew my eye to him now and then throughout the evening, but ultimately I kept a safe distance away and hurried home when the event ended. We barely spoke and that didn’t disappoint me. I wouldn’t have had the gumption to say much more than I said.
Fast-forward one year and insert my having forgotten about his existence though I’d since heard from multiple sources that this boy is notorious for being sort of aloof and not remembering anybody. I sit down in church and there he is, sitting in the pew behind and just to one side of me. When the meeting ended, he leaned forward and said I know I’ve met you before, but what is your name again?’ I calmly reached out my hand to shake his and politely asked to be reminded of his name too (though I knew what it was) and my insides were screaming “you KNOW you’ve MET ME before!?”
It felt like a triumph, it really did, but he was still much too good-looking to speak to. Later in the same day I was nearby when someone asked him a question about where some food for an activity had gone and I heard him say, “I think that Australian guy took it.”
I was shocked.
“That Australian guy” is actually not even from Australia, but he too is someone I don’t really talk to because he intimidates me with his classy foreign-ness the way that the first boy intimidates me with his handsome-ness. I was shocked to learn that they weren’t in cahoots. Stupid of me I know, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that some little part of me thought that all the glittering strangers in my ward knew one another, as though they occupy some other social strata that I can’t reach or have never been invited to.
Then I realized that the limitations that I’ve put up inside of myself for who it’s safe to talk to, are an absolute labyrinth, a nearly impenetrable maze disguised as modern art. I’m living with a barrel of fear inside me and all along I thought it was just logic.
It isn’t that I completely don’t talk to them, but that fear inside means that I’m never really myself. The insecure feelings that they might somehow reject me or disdain me makes me go all mama bear protecting my ego-cub and I just come across as intense and not very friendly.
I was on my way to a rehearsal on the campus of BYU a few weeks ago and I saw a girl sitting in a wheelchair in a garden area with a big sketchbook out drawing what was in front of her. It is a classic spot for BYU’s drawing classes to find subject matter for their art, so I asked her about how she liked the drawing class and what the schedule was like and what materials you were required to buy. All in all we had a very cheerful conversation and I could feel she was, for some reason, lifted by it. When I turned to leave she called out, “Well, I’ll see you later!”
She won’t see me later. I don’t attend that university anymore and I rarely have occasion to be on campus for anything. It gave me a little twinge of sadness to hear her cheerful hope that we’d meet again. True, that’s just a thing people say, but in her tone I could tell that she meant it.
After meeting this girl, I mourned for all the people at BYU that I didn’t talk to because I assumed my conversation would be unwanted. I walked between my classes at that institution happily observing the goings-on in the lives of the passers-by without ever attempting to join them. I had tons of friends at BYU, this isn’t some confessions of a lonely co-ed’ moment, but I so rarely stepped outside myself to get them. I recognize my capability for cheering and lifting people that could use a moment of my attention and genuine interest and I know that that skill is vastly underutilized because of fear.
I walked around as a student subconsciously giving reasons why each individual would have no interest or room for me in their life. In response to those feelings I adopted a general feeling of You can’t reject me! I already rejected you!’ None of these thoughts were ever conscious, but I can see them in things I know I’ve said before like, “there is not a single person in this ward I connect with”—-Yea, Mariah, I’m sure you went around to each person and gave it a try before you made that blanket statement.
What upsets me about this whole sentiment that I’ve recently uncovered from its insidious hiding place in my bones is not just how much I’ve been limiting myself, but how much I’ve been limiting other people. How much I have refused to allow them to be different than first sight or have more to offer than their appearance or their potential for hurting my feelings. At my core, I fundamentally believe that everyone has something unique to teach me that I could not learn from anyone else and I’m now realizing how much it means to people to talk to someone that believes that about them.
I’ve been walking around thinking no one wanted to talk to me when all those potential conversationalists were probably walking around thinking no one wanted to talk to them. We’re all just waiting in ice with no one to break it. And I don’t feel self-conscious having spent the first half-page of this article mostly extolling the handsomeness of a boy I will have to face again because even if by some crazy coincidence he were ever to read it, he’d probably fail to recognize himself in it—perhaps he wouldn’t let himself believe anyone thought that of him the same way I go through life bracing for the impact of some oncoming rejection.
I would encourage everyone (mostly you, Mariah) to try to give the people around them the benefit of the doubt. From years of being a confidante, I have learned that the people that feel lonely and friendless are often sitting right next to each other and have but to turn and solve their problem. Not everyone connects with everyone else, and meanness exists, but if there is a circle where it feels like you don’t fit in (or a handsome stranger you’re sure you should avoid talking to), step into the circle and be the person that makes someone else fit in and feel worthwhile. I hypothesize that you will quickly find that the shiny, perfect confidence everyone in the world seems to have mastered but you, is in fact a mirage of your own fabrication. And (fingers-crossed) that handsome guy is just waiting for the quality of conversation and feeling of acceptance and admiration only you can bring to him.