The Strangers We Think We Know

We have gotten used to strangers. They are the people we pass by in the street like a monotonous flow of flesh. They are the ones we hope don’t look us in the eye as we pass, or the ones who stand quietly shoulder to shoulder with us in elevators. They are the ones we are afraid to wave a quick “hello” to as they drive by our homes. Those are the strangers we understand — they are ubiquitous, generalized, and benign. We all know what to expect from them — nothing.

But what of the strangers we think we know — the stranger who lives inside of those we know best? What of the histories of our loved ones and our best friends that lie dormant? Just like those strangers on the street, we never raise a “hello” to the old histories of those closest to us. Their histories, whether they are full of pain, or full of love, lie unknown to us. We may hear second hand stories from aunts and uncles, brothers or sisters, but they lack detail and potency. These histories are never accessed directly from the individual, for fear of that which is strange or  difficult to talk about. But that history that we leave in the darkness is an important part of those people. It is the window through which we can see others as they see themselves. Some are windows of unbearable pain, whereas others are windows of transcendent happiness, and some are a glorious mix of both. But we can only get to those windows through those who lived that history — direct from the source.

Because we don’t access the unspoken stranger in others, we lose out on those personal histories. We lose out on those stories. And as my grandparents get older, I realize the gleaning absence of those personal histories in any form that will continue into the future. The diaries are worn and beaten, the oral stories are told far too infrequently to be remembered. And for that reason, the personal stories take on the guise of strangers to us — benign, generalized, and ubiquitous. The ones we’ve heard flow together to form an ambiguous story of a dying generation. When people pass away, those personal histories pass with them. We need to do our best to grab hold of the stranger in those we love, and pull those stories out into the light. Because when they are gone, we can not pull back the ghost of that stranger. I’ve tried. He will be gone forever.

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