I had my 20-year high school reunion last month. Besides remembering that college students look so young to me, I have a hard time articulating it properly, but I guess I realized that people tend to be much more complex(in a good way) than one gives them credit for. I spoke with people that I really didn’t like much in High School(because they struck me as mean or arrogant or whatever) and they surprised me with insights into current day events and into many of our classmates as well as events they had experienced in high school(I had no idea that our principal had a “HNIC” placard on his desk!). Part of me regretted not having known them so well in high school, while another part reminded me that it wasn’t always possible to get to know them since the popular kids(a group I didn’t belong to) weren’t all that open to others. I also didn’t particularly try to make lots of new friends in high school either, so that all boiled together to me not knowing a lot of the people at the reunion that well.
A few days after the reunion, there was a memorial service for a doctor I had worked with. He was young so it was a bit of shock to me(it turned out that he had cancer, but had not wanted a lot of people to know). During the memorial people told stories about him, and as with my reunion experience I was struck by the rich and varied life he led beyond the bit I had gotten to know through meetings or projects. I knew he was a successful and hard working doctor and researcher, but I didn’t know so much about his music or how much he cared for his friends. It was moving to see what an impact he had made on so many people’s lives.
These two events started me thinking about how I can take this insight and apply it to enriching the experiences I have with people I know today. It’s so easy to fall into a routine and just take people for what I see. A few years ago I was listening to a lot of Buddhist-inspired mindfulness audio books and was struck by an exercise suggested by either Pema Chodron or Tara Brach of imagining that someone you see (but don’t know) is a close friend. After starting this exercise I realized that I had usually made all kinds of assumptions and judgments just based on how people looked. It reminded me of when I played soccer as a kid, and the people on the other teams always looked kind of weird to me since I didn’t know them. Is it a built in function to see unfamiliar people as odd or different? After doing the exercise and imaging someone is a friend, I find that my attitude towards these strangers softens. I not as distracted by visual oddities or unfamiliar behaviors and can realize that the person I’m looking has their own joys and sorrows and life story. I do this on the bus very often for kicks, I also tend to end up in a better mood when I do this. All of this leads me back to the idea of without being weird or creepy, how can I get to know the people I see around me everyday in a better sense? With the people at the reunion, or those who I have some sort of obvious connection with, Facebook has proven to be a useful tool to open up lines of communication, even if they aren’t ever used. At the least you can get a sense for what people are up to in their lives. But for those you don’t have shared history with it’s a bit harder. Further complicating things it that I barely see my close friends as it is, so the idea of making a whole new set of friends seems impossible.
At the end of the reunion(we got kicked out of the bar because it closed), people started looking for a house to “keep the party going at”. I guess it happened rather smoothly at our 10 year(Unfortunately I didn’t attend any of the after parties 10 years ago). If you can, try to imagine a group of 38 year-olds, many of us moms and dads, trying to find a house to party at. We tried to go the local pizza parlor, but it was closed for the night. Drunken college kids were also out and it was enjoyable and maybe affirming to see a tipsy college guy trying to hit on one of the women from our reunion; “Honey, I could almost be your mom”. In the end, the funny part to me was that in high school, people would have been trying to find a place where the parents weren’t home to go and party. This time the party couldn’t keep going because those who lived in the area all had kids at home.
I spent that night at my friend’s place, who lives on the other side of town from where I grew up. The next day, driving in that neighborhood, I was struck that I knew so little about the people who had lived on that side of town while growing up. It was a relatively small town, but once school assignment boundaries changed, it felt like another world. I felt nostalgic and maybe a bit melancholy(“oh, how I could have done things differently in high school”), but it was another subtle reminder to maybe stretch myself in getting to know the people I pass by everyday, I don’t want another 20 years to pass and realize I passed up some interesting relationships.