They had been together for roughly eight years. She showed up the day of, radiating beauty and joy in her white gown, only to get a late notice of his change of heart. That was the premise of a news story I had stumbled upon online, whose tragic headline caught my attention: “Bride-to-Be Attempts Suicide in Wedding Dress After Break-Up”. Perhaps more telling was the photo underneath. Her chin was raised high in complete surrender. She hung underneath the window exterior, her arms and feet supported by strangers while her dress framed her limp figure in an almost angelic fashion.
All those years of 3 am conversations, welcome home dinners, and pinky promises, only to culminate into loss. It left me bothered with some unshakeable thoughts: if you get close enough with someone, they have the power to hurt you. And you won’t see it coming. It’s sad because when you invest in something, you want it to be permanent. So if there’s a good chance that your relationship with a person might not work out, then why bother with it? The idea sends me chills. Honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do if I was in the girl’s situation.
Common fears for many people include drowning, horror movies, or public speaking; I am lucky enough to harbor all of these. But while those scenarios are a familiar part of the human condition, they are at least rational. Having a fear of.. other people? That’s ridiculous.
Let me give a bit of backstory.
Most people wouldn’t say I’m a people person. I would beg to differ. While it would be a lie to say that I’m not introverted, I do like being around others. I like keeping different types of company. Since middle school I’ve always gotten along with a variety of cliques. Of my friends, I am the mediator, being careful to remain distant from conflict, but close enough to diffuse it. Don’t let my silence at dinner tables or low voice leave the wrong impression; reading the room and listening to the anecdotes being told by its inhabitants is just as entertaining to me as spending quality time by myself.
I am however, guilty of keeping too much distance. My efforts to be social can be seen as passive, minimal. For a long time, I felt self-conscious about my social life. I can’t say when exactly, probably once high school ended. You know, as you pass certain stages in life you build expectations for different aspects of your life that you expect to meet. Like a lot of people, my social network was a big one for me. I used to be close with a lot of people — what happened? Even though I had I appreciated the handful who are in my life, I couldn’t help but feel alienated. Obviously the number of people you know has nothing to do with the strength of your personal connections. In spite of this logic, the questions nagged at me as I picked at my insecurities like scabs. Is there’s something wrong with me? Am I trying too hard or not hard enough? Whatever I guess, in college, it’ll get better. Or so I thought.
But instead of getting better, it got worse. That expectation was derailed when I started community college, which was essentially a transit station. People passed through but never lingered for longer than they needed to. By that moment, I knew better though. Friends had naturally grown distant and displaced, so my social network had thinned out. I had gone through enough severed ties, unanswered invitations, and hollow friendships. I wasn’t going to bother to make an serious effort in something that I knew to be temporary. Instead, I faced the cold, hard reality that connections came with expiration dates. This only added to the anxiety of finding and restoring authenticity into my relationships with people.
This toxic mentality seeped into my way of thinking, subtly changing my positive mentality to mirror that of the most hardened cynic and presenting itself as deceitfully rational. Before I realized it, my default reaction was to mentally wriggle myself out of uncomfortable situations. Oh, I’m not going to go out of my way for that. Since I’m not close with them, I don’t know if I should go. What if this happens, will it even be worth it? I shot down scenarios that weren’t very likely to happen before they even happened.
When I transferred to a university, I thought things were going to change. I was eager to get a fresh start and finally start working on those permanent social groups I was eager to be a part of. I joined a number of clubs, attended countless meetings, even forced myself into meager small talk with the neighbor sitting next to me in class.. only to get let down again. Despite trying to be active on campus, I didn’t find that perfect friend group I could settle into. I didn’t feel as if I truly belonged somewhere. I didn’t feel as if I had developed many new friendships that I was certain would last.
It didn’t play out the way I expected, but it wasn’t until looking back that I realized that it was okay. I didn’t need extensive connections to feel grounded. I ultimately left school with many connections — many were fleeting and involved a handful of conversations or less, a few were solid ones which consisted of several social gatherings, but all of them weren’t without meaning. So I didn’t learn the names of all the people from my dance teams. So I didn’t go to bars every weekend with people from my classes or school newspaper. So I didn’t become best friends with all my roommates. Of my new friendships, I’m still not certain if they’ll really last.. but the question is irrelevant. There’s no real objective way to confirm the value of an interpersonal connection, and you can’t be 100% certain. Regardless of their nature, they each shaped my perspective in ways I never could have anticipated. I was so busy trying to insert myself into this imaginary niche I had constructed, I didn’t see that I was taking for granted what I had during those moments.
Whether it’s an acquaintance or loved one, all relationships demand this unpleasant trade-off, presenting a social contract that may or may not be fulfilled. But sometimes, you need to expose yourself to the elements. No one wants to undermine their stability, but inevitably there’ll come a time (or multiple) when relinquishing absolute control is necessary. If you’re going to be preoccupied with the risk of lasting negative consequences, the opposite idea deserves equal attention: what of the lasting positive ones?
You can’t worry about anticipating the encounter so much that you devalue the ones that might be possibly rewarding, and become entangled in your own unfounded caution. More often than not, it is worth it to experience those moments of discomfort. People aren’t meant to live their lives in an isolated vacuum. There’s no sense in preventing yourself from certain situations; how are you going to have good things happen to you if you prevent anything from happening to you?
My fear wasn’t just a fear of people, impermanence, or vulnerability, it was a cowardice that was based on expecting the worst in people. You have all to gain if you let go of a constantly scrutinizing mindset. It’s important to live openly in the world, but even more so to be a part of it. It’s harmful to assume that just because you don’t see the potential value of something right away doesn’t mean it has none. If you sanitize your experiences with people, you risk eroding the quality of them. Several seconds of discomfort can lead to.. who knows? People shouldn’t have to pass some arbitrary test to be worthy of being in your life. The transient people in your lives bear as much significance as your loved ones. I’ve learned to let others come and go and be more mindful to not let a moment of hesitance keep me from good company, permanent or not.