Insinuating a strong generalization based on spatial understandings and influences is all fine and dandy.
We travel and cross miles, claim our mobility in whatever shape and form, because we like to escape generalizations, while expanding our understandings of life, art, and perhaps even politics, in whatever purist or saturated form we deem our experiences of aesthetic differences crucially understandable.
Escaping is at the crux of what we humans like to do, whether it’s through procrastinating on important projects or walking through a tropical forest when we live in concrete jungles. In a way, escaping, even if briefly, allows us to be mesmerized by the landscapes we seek, while ensuring that we are getting out of seemingly suffocating situations and immersing ourselves in the “wild,” the “foreign,” as a means of providing relief to our senses. In doing thus, we exercise our need for “freedom,” for independence, and indeed, we embrace the possibility that something more exists than what we know.
Why are we so heavily influenced by what we see strangers say or do? Why is it that in certain places, making eye contact is culturally acceptable, and so are conversations with those you do not know and will never see again, but in others, they are shunned, and avoided?
During a trip to California ten years ago, I was visibly troubled, when a stranger stopped me on the street and greeted me, “Hey, how are you?” We were walking towards the promenade at Ocean Beach in San Diego.
My typically New Yorker response to this innocuous greeting?
Clutching my bags tightly, as though I was about to be subject to getting mugged.
My friend grinned at me. “Relax,” he said, “People in California are friendlier than on the East Coast.”
I did relax, and had a fantastic month exploring Southern California. To do thus, I had to make a conscious effort to step out of my comfort zone, and begin to trust that the strangers I was encountering, really were far removed from Rasputin.
In other words, to enjoy others, I had to make a mental transformation, an effort to escape my ingrained understandings of of human nature.
I doubt, after all, that 99% of New Yorkers would be bothered to try and mug me, and just the fact that they are living in the crucible which are the five boroughs, is reflective of how these strangers are possibly truly accepting of difference, whether it’s racial or cultural diversity.
Months later, I found my answer through a circulating Facebook meme, packaged in a simple word: “sonder,” which according to Urban Dictionary, is,
The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
Fleeting passerby can be definitive. Strangers with style, with something to say, can become the great artists, and even the sonder experienced in the spaces traditionally perceived as being the houses of arts and culture, whilst changing, can provide definitive feedback regarding preconceived notions about the fabric of social interactions.
Perceptions can play either inspiring or condescending roles in how we begin to articulate our surroundings, who we meet, and how we are affected, or the effect we leave on others, but when we begin to create sustained gradations of this understanding, and when we begin to exercise prejudice by pushing others around, we seek to lose more than just our dignities, we begin to lose the entire sense of what civilized human behavior can ever come to mean to us.
Thinking about the lives of strangers allowed me to move beyond thinking of the limitations of my own world, of my own understandings of the world. I’d be keen to see how you all think of the matter at hand. After all, there is no such thing as east or west, but these distinctions persist in the minds of those who create and master these distinctions.