Today I did just that.
It’s an accomplishment, because this year I find myself so busy that I seldom stop and talk to people that I haven’t planned to talk to, unless they initiate a conversation. I sometimes feel as if I have become superior to the freshman me, the girl who needed to be friends with everyone and found it extremely awkward when the nine other kids in her creative writing class would sit and stare quietly at their phones until the professor came, except for when she broke the silence with an overly-sunny, “Hey, how’s life?” (which was often. Okay, pretty much every week). I used to feel really lonely and uncomfortable eating alone in the dining hall, even if it was a self-inflicted solitude (as when I wanted to get away to do some reading before class).
Nowadays, I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve proudly told my friends on several occasions that I’m perfectly fine eating by myself now, that I even prefer it most of the time, because short lunchtime conversations can be so superficial and I never get anything done.
I don’t know when my mindset or my habits started to shift in this direction; maybe it was on the first day of my Philosophy 202 lecture when I introduced myself to the girl sitting next to me and she asked me (quite condescendingly, I thought) if I was a freshman, which I denied half-indignantly. In any case, over the semester I’ve watched myself grow into a true sophomore, a “wise fool” who thinks she knows better than to try to make friends with everyone now, who has books to read and papers to write and events to organize and no time for idle chitchat.
But every once in a while I am surprised and blessed by those around me who aren’t quite as jaded or self-important yet (hopefully they never will be).
There was the freshman girl who sat next to me in lecture one day. She decided to ask me what the professor’s last sentence was, and, finding me equally ignorant, laughed and compared the sleepy illegible scrawls in her notebook to my own.
There was the freshman girl who plopped herself down in the café booth across from me as I was trying to eat a quick lunch and simultaneously fix an app on my phone. I didn’t know her, except that she was in my precept, but she was completely comfortable telling me all about herself and what she thought of the class, and asking me question after question about what it was like to be a sophomore. I answered as best I could, but found that I really didn’t know that much more. And while I was originally irritated that this random girl was encroaching on my private space and time, and thought I would much rather be reading my Bible, if only this stupid app would stop malfunctioning and she would stop bothering me–I realized, hey. Why can’t you just stop. Look around. Say Hi?
It would make such a difference, even if we only did it once in a while. When did I lose that naïveté, or perhaps more fittingly, that courage, to reach out to the strangers (and friends) around me? To care about how other people are really doing? It seems obvious, but most of the time I forget that all of my friends were once strangers–that strangers are friends just one conversation away.
Today I was no less busy than usual. In fact, I was probably a little bit busier, and I remember being somewhat unhappy about the fact that I had to eat dinner alone and in a rush just so I could get to rehearsal on time. But as I seated myself in the corner of a near-empty table, I realized that the man sitting on the other end of it was probably not thrilled about eating alone either. He was one of the staff members who swipe our cards for meals every day, and I knew his name (I’ll call him “Larry” here) from the many times I had greeted him as I swiped into the dining hall. Watching him pick at his salad, I wondered if he and the other staff had to eat alone all the time, since they took breaks and ate in shifts.
So I decided to say “Hi Larry!” even though I was actually about to be joined by a friend I had run into in the kitchen. He looked over and greeted me, and I decided it was rude and inconvenient to yell at him from across the table so I moved over to sit next to him, thinking that my friend wouldn’t mind eating with me and Larry. Turns out she had other plans though, so I ended up just talking to Larry for those ten minutes that I had allotted to my speedy pre-rehearsal meal–ten minutes that had to turn into fifteen, and would’ve been twenty or thirty if I’d had the choice. In that short conversation, Larry told me a lot about his personal life, his family, a story about a family friend, and finally also what he was doing now (besides being a dining hall staff member)–his new business project, his hopes and dreams for the future.
It was not an earth-shattering event; we did not become best friends or have any life-changing epiphanies, but it was good. Now when I go to dinner, I will no longer just say Hi to “Larry the card-swiper guy who may-or-may-not be from Haiti,” but I will know him a little more as a real person–Larry who worries because his mother is getting old and his brothers aren’t around to care; Larry who is excited about his idea to make people eat healthier foods; Larry who smiles as he swipes our cards and remembers our names.
I was planning on sleeping a bit earlier tonight, but I remembered this and didn’t want to forget. I want to stop caring so much about my agenda, or what people might think of me–how awkward I must seem, how intruding, how like a freshman.
I want to stop caring so much about these things, and instead remember what it means to just care.