Note: this may only occur to you if you live in a similar area to where you grew up – or in a State like mine, that’s only one million people wide.
I was in a coffee shop yesterday near my, yes I’m annoying, new job. I was reading a book and felt pressure on the corner of my face from someone’s eyes, so I glanced up. The person who had been staring was no longer looking, and suddenly my eyes acknowledge a matured face from his youth. The staring stranger and I had attended elementary school together and had been childhood friends at one point. We had gone on to high school and college in the same places but ultimately grown apart. *Warning, this is not a love story. Even as someone who worked in a school I attended, and still live in my hometown, there are some encounters with people from my past I just can’t help but avoid. There is an unsettling anxiety that inhabits us when one of these moments of chance with a lost friend happen out of the blue, in public.
You know, maybe it’s a grocery store, a concert, or bar, but regardless you feel the urge to run away from people you haven’t seen in over three years of a similar category. This might be your ex’s mother, an old teammate, a previous co-worker from a job you hated. So you do your best to look too busy, extra preoccupied, or utterly unaware, but every once in a while, one slips through and locks eyes. Typically the conversation is short and sweet and awkward, and then you engage in post-traumatic-friend-from-a-long-time-ago stress disorder, and the whole ride to wherever you are off to next you wonder what they thought of you, or even begin to wonder about them and their life. Or does this not happen to everyone?
Regardless, on this specific day of yesterday, I had been listening to Bob Goff’s “Everybody Always” in the car on my way to work. Maybe you’re not Christian, or into Books, so I’ll summarize… the title means Love Everybody, Always. Now I’m not super far into the text currently, but Goff had just been saying that we often avoid the people that we don’t understand; therefore we never get the chance to love them. He lightly puts it as people that “creep us out,” but in a general sense it’s those that we can never ever relate to that we don’t get the chance to love. Only loving people that make it easy, or that we just like, well that’s essentially cheating in the Christian faith. So as I sipped my cup trying to decide whether or not to say Hi to this individual it occurred to me, I hoped one of Goff’s next chapters discusses how to Love the people we once loved but then just stopped seeing, strayed away from, or lost in life.
As kids, we are easily enveloped by our first friendships so zealously that we scream and hug them even after one day of not seeing them at school. We skip down the road to our neighbor’s house just to say hello through the window, and if in a car that drives by a friend we hang our little torsos out as far as we can to wave or yell. But then as an adult, there I was slumped in a corner questioning whether or not to even say “Hi” to one of those people and to love them openly after years. Logistically, we made different decisions in life. We traveled different paths. We made choices that were different, maybe to engage in certain activities, maybe to lose touch, maybe to dislike one another. The reason I feel that I react this way to these scenarios is because I, and maybe we all, have insecurities that whisper, “they judge you for those choices.” Sometimes in my case, the whispers are actually implying that “they think you judged them for those choices.” So we pause, and avoid, and fret, and potentially never see these “friends” again.
Because my brain moves a mile a minute before I could even say anything in the coffee shop I was then transported back in time to last year, in my classroom at Sanford High. I had stood in front of a classroom of students, actually a room in which I had attended class, and gave an emphasized piece of advice. I told them I had gained perspective from working at the High School I attended, and that I had gotten to see what I would do differently. I pointed to a desk and showed them where I had sat as a student, and then to another’s office and told them about a boy that had gone to school with me and sat at that place. I had never talked to the kid in that desk. Didn’t know him at all. I probably smiled in his direction, I can be smiley, but I know there was probably never a full conversation or even small talk. As an adult, a few weeks earlier, he had passed away due to a tragic accident. So I was standing in a room faced with my avoidance, and in all honesty, my regret. I urged them to talk to everyone and to do so genuinely, fake talking is even worse than not at all, and ultimately I begged them to learn from my mistakes. Had I listened to Bob Goff at the time I probably would have advised my students to love those they were uncomfortable with, always. Instead, I just told them to take it from me, and the walls around us, to be kind, and real, and to speak to those near them with love and intent because we never know who could become a part of our lives later from our past, or who could become lost.
So back to the coffee shop, when my glance returned to the guy-from-elementary-school that I had been avoiding, I decided to put my money where my mouth is – a true teaching moment for me. Why prevent ourselves from speaking to someone out of fear that they all of a sudden resent your memory for absolutely no specific reason, actually just reasons we’ve made up in our heads? Why feel too busy or too bothered to give someone from our past the attention that we should, as our neighbor, and fellow human? I’ll be honest – the discussion wasn’t groundbreaking, but I had hoped he felt the genuineness of my words instead of a hint of avoidance. I felt myself want the world for him and realized that those feelings of honest love and care were just masked in my own social anxiety. And anxiety, my friends, is no reason to avoid loved ones.
Ultimately I realized that the hardest conversations aren’t always the deep ones, but the first steps back to those with a semi-friend-stranger. I think as humans we are all concerned with the way we look to those from our past, much more than those who we have just met. We want to show growth, change, maturity, success when instead we should just be showing love. So if I could channel some inner Bob Goff and advise us all to do one thing, I would say, let’s go out and show love. Not just to strangers, and our family, and our closest friends, but to those, we once crossed paths with that are out of touch and out of our love.