Seven billion stories

Futility of completely understanding all others doesn’t justify ignoring those around you.

By Kevin Wei

Hi, my name is Kevin Wei, and I’m a certain type of That Kid. Not the type that spouts off pretentious thoughts on epistemology while everyone rolls their eyes, but the type who starts conversations with complete strangers while waiting in the dining hall lines, on the shuttles, or anywhere else on campus.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that O-Week was a haven for me—a time and place where people were completely open to the idea of subjecting themselves to the thoughts and conversations of complete strangers, simply because there was no other viable alternative. The choice was to either make friends during this massive influx of strangers that were eager to meet each other, or to later play catch-up socially as everyone settled into her own little communities. Oddly, the immediate rush to make friends during O-Week was further fueled by the knowledge that this spirit of making new connections would eventually die down. But I find myself asking more and more, “Why does this spirit have to end in the first place?”

I get it; sometimes it just feels wrong when you’re approached by someone of whom you have no knowledge, who starts speaking to you as a friend, for no other reason than the fact that it’s awkward. In situations where we are either forced to talk or stand around doing nothing, it’s easy to hide behind texts, Facebook, or anything on your phone. It’s so easy to dismiss this talkative stranger—what’s his deal anyway? I’m not interested in making any new friends, and certainly not with this guy. But if you’re not interested in branching out because there are easier alternatives, and everyone else followed that trend, wouldn’t we all just be floating around in our own little social bubbles, never making any new connections?

Don’t worry, I feel weird talking to strangers too, but I do it for a legitimate reason—and not to make people feel uncomfortable or to form a cynical viewpoint on society’s reclusiveness and isolation and spark readership debate. I’m a firm believer of the elementary school mantra that everyone is special. The lack of total empathy and understanding between human beings is unchangeable and makes each and every one of us unique. The fact that I cannot completely empathize with and understand your exact feelings and thoughts is what makes you special. If I could experience every one of your thoughts and memories, would there be any distinguishing characteristics between you and me? But even though I can never perfectly understand anyone else, my goal is to bridge this lack of empathy as best I can with as many people as I can.

Why? You see, there’s always been something alluring to me about other individuals with whom I’ll never get the chance to speak. The feeling can be summed up by the word “sonder,” which is the massive realization that each random passerby lives a life as vivid and complex as your own. It’s so hard to imagine that each blur of traffic and each background coffee drinker has her own Homeric epic while we are selfishly wrapped up in our own imaginations, friends, routines. And when you really think about it, there are 7 billion of these different individuals that seem to be holding something I can learn—about them, about the world—just waiting to be unlocked in an opportune conversation.

7 billion M&M’s would fill three Olympic-size swimming pools, Americans consume 7 billion bananas every four months, and 7 billion steps would take you around the earth 33 times! Every day I am constantly aware of the fact that I’ll never be able to witness the entirety of 7 billion different opinions about the world around me. And there are this many people that have different viewpoints on the world! How can that not be amazing?

Alas, it’s impossible for me to talk to each and every person in order to learn, so what am I to do? But at least I can start a conversation with the nearest stranger also waiting for the El. That’s why I aim to talk, because maybe I’m just a little bit afraid to miss out on the one special conversation that could completely change my worldview.

I am part of a dying breed, and every conversation that is denied me challenges my survival. Or maybe I’m just being way too overdramatic, so you can start a conversation about this article with a stranger.

Kevin Wei is a first-year in the College.