Some time ago, a friend asked me what my superpower was. I said talking to strangers. This is not the first time I’ve had this conversation. Before this, another friend suggested that self-reflection was my superpower. I like talking to strangers better—at least it (conceptually) gets me out of my head.

Talking to strangers seems to be a gift I got from my mom’s side. She does it. Her dad did it. Perhaps it goes way up the family tree. Is it possible that this is just a case of general friendliness? Maybe. I don’t talk to strangers very frequently, but over the years, if I found myself next to someone on a long Greyhound bus home, passing someone on the street for the fifth time, or seeing a familiar face in the coffee shop, I have from time to time, struck up a conversation.

This has led to good things. For other people, it has been at the very least, annoying. At the best, well, we’re friends to this day. Not a bad trade-off when it comes to taking risks, I think.

One early example comes from when I left home for the first time. I was walking down the halls of my residence in university, freshly brined in chlorine from my shift as a lifeguard at an off-campus pool, when I overheard two other first-years talking about recording music. Something possessed me to, if I remember correctly, walk up behind them and interrupt their conversation: are you guys talking about recording?. Yes, they were working on a project that involved audio recording. I offered help as I was very into that at the time. 13 years later, we’re still friends.

Candidly, I am an outgoing person. I am extroverted. Maybe it was my harmless earnestness, concentric circles of similarity, or maybe I just landed on the right kind of open people (to be fair, at the tender age of 17/18, people are often much more open than double that age, I find).

Years later, when that friend group that carried me through university split off and went their separate ways, I found myself left in my University town with not much to hold on to. I carried on, working my first real job out of school, building relationships with new co-workers, most of them seven or eight years older than me. I had one or two newer friendships still in the city but it was sometimes lonely without a familiar band of pals and the variety of student-life.

One day, I was walking downtown when I saw a dog stuck in the middle of the street. It looked confused and didn’t seem to know where it was. I called out to a guy walking on the other side of the street: hey, is this your dog? Nope. So we set out to find the owner. I biked around looking for people on the street and he made some calls while keeping the dog at his side. The owner, grateful, showed up some 15 minutes later. After we finished our good deed, I noted that my dog-rescuing-partner had a tennis racket slung over his back.

Oh! You play tennis? Want to play?

And we did. He was delighted. He told me he was just on the way to practice hitting the ball against the wall. No partner at all. And over the coming months, we played squash, board games, made new friends, went rock climbing, and did many other wonderful things together [1].

I’m unabashedly proud of these stories because they led to fruitful, meaningful human connection. And I’m proud of them because they are some of the few successful outcomes from many missed connections. For all these people who kindly kept the conversation going, there have been far more who never called back, didn’t feel like chatting with some annoying kid on the bus (I would not like to chat with anyone on the bus, ever again, for the record), or never got around to making that plan happen. Thankfully, that didn’t stop me, then. Call it a lack of self-awareness, or maybe just being tenderhearted and young.

Holding on to that earnestness is now an ongoing struggle. That supposed superpower is still around, I think, but it takes different forms. My energy levels have changed. Cynicism has crept into various perspectives. But I try and tell myself that part of getting older is knowing what you like, (and not just becoming a grump).

Being between 17 and 25-ish afforded me a lot of leeway. At worst, I just looked and sounded like some harmless, energetic, dumb kid. People say it’s harder to make friends in your 30s. It is. And I think it will get harder, still. Schedules fill up, people have families, the traumas of life accumulate, and people focus on closer, specialized relationships. Still, something in my heart tells me many souls are wandering around who could use a friend, and I count myself among them.

Many things can wear down the earnestness I’m trying to hold on to. Beyond fatigue, interpersonal conflict, mental health struggles, gender roles, etc, it sometimes feels that culturally, settling down doesn’t just mean finding a partner(s) and pursuing career/family/craft; it is as if finding new friends just isn’t part of the game of life anymore. Just as adults seem obsessed with discussing play from a rigorous and academic viewpoint (instead of just playing), there is also no shortage of discussion about the challenge of adults building new and meaningful friendships.

Maybe that unfortunate phrase of settling down could also be about putting walls up around your heart so that the people who are already inside can plumb the depths of your love. I’d be happy if that were true. But I’m not sure that’s all there is to it. I do think that adulting leaves little time or energy to make things happen. Accumulated responsibilities coupled with the day-after-day stepping away from youthful hopes and dreams are enough for anyone to ditch the idea of opening up to new people and building relationships. For me, I don’t think that being very online makes this easier.

We learn to think of rejection as a personal failure. We think that to put ourselves out there and have a missed connection somehow is shameful, or we take fault with ourselves for it. To borrow from The Four Agreements, I think not taking things personally is important, here. And if it’s the case that you don’t take things personally, well, you get to play what some people like to call a numbers game. If it costs you little to no energy to face "rejection", then you move on and do it again. It won’t be long before you meet someone amazing —if you’re tuned to see that amazement, I suppose.

Can we emotionally normalize this idea? Right now it takes a good dose of courage and vulnerability to throw yourself out there again and again. I think it’s hard. It certainly takes a lot of self-love (or perhaps a lack of self-awareness if you wish to think of it from that angle) to be ok putting yourself out there authentically and seeing where it takes you.

Many of my examples of meeting strangers are from a time of life when it is considered classically easier to do so. But this year, an opportunity came up when I met L. He came to a bike booth I was volunteering at to get some help with his bike. In the effort to fix it, his axle disintegrated (!) in my hands, and we also broke the wing nut holding the front wheel. Some help we were. I felt bad about that (although, he didn’t—it was a pretty old bike he got for cheap, he told us).

Before L left, I felt a younger part of myself calling to me. We got to talking. He told me he was visiting and working from Germany as part of a paid internship. Partly feeling badly about the bike, and partly wanting to hold on to my supposed waning superpower, I asked him if I could get his number and show him around town once his bike was properly fixed. That was not easy. There were parts of me practically screaming at me not to do this: This isn’t normal; you’re going to come off as a total creep!. And so on.

We went on several great rides around the city. After one evening, over a post-ride ice-cream, we mutually discovered our enjoyment of tennis. So we picked that up, too.

No, the lesson here is not to pick up tennis (although it is fun, and if you are good at losing, people might enjoy playing with you—I lost 90% of my games to L). I’m not trying to say there is a lesson at all. I do recognize patterns in my life. The path to being a generalist has enabled me to be flexible and say yes to different kinds of activities. Having hobbies definitely has helped me connect with people. I suppose it is one among several running threads, here. So there’s that [2] .

After living through a pandemic, the above story feels backward. For a couple years, the pandemic told us to fear strangers. Strangers could kills us, or pass something to us that we could pass on to those we loved. That didn’t exactly promote the cause for community and connection and instead, probably reinforced lingering ideas of Stranger Danger .

I don’t have superpowers. I have weaknesses and strengths. Like many people I know, in a struggle toward self-acceptance, I have spent more time dwelling on the former than the latter. Sometimes it feels like you need superpowers to survive adult life. But I’ll take what personal strengths I can find. I have some ideas about what life might throw at me in the coming years. Scary stuff, but thankfully until I experience it, it will only be a looming storm, far in the distance. I will keep talking to strangers. If I’m lucky, I’ll make some new friends and keep the old ones, and together we can admire both the accumulating clouds and the moments when the sun breaks through.

  1. Sadly, we are not in touch like we used to be — I know that’s how it goes, but, C, if you ever read this, please know how much your friendship meant — it was 2015 and I have so many warm memories from that time. ↩︎

  2. But, quality time doing specific things has been my M.O for a while, so I’m not surprised that is what works for me. ↩︎