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Break the habits of everyday life

Adam Cahill | Wednesday, March 3, 2004

It’s a Monday morning on the campus of Notre Dame, and I’m walking to class thinking about which classes I don’t want to go to and the work that I should have done weeks ago. I’m in no particular hurry, even though the rain is steadily piercing the material of my gray hooded sweatshirt, and I’m relieved that there are only a few days before Spring Break and the Mexican sunshine. I’ve got a hat on, and it suddenly appears to me that the most interesting things at the moment are the characterless sidewalk and the easiest way to keep from walking in the lakes that have accumulated on South Quad.I have a few more minutes before class, and I tend to walk more slowly to reflect on things happening in my life when I have time. But the slower I walk, the more I look around and see hundreds of people, just like me, hustling toward their next class, oblivious to all the potential friends they are walking by.Why is it that I never say hello to any of these people? They dress like I do, go to the same school as I do, party like I do; well, maybe not party like I do. But if you are like me, you tend to shy away from any potentially awkward situation because you’re scared of the perception of being the random person on the quad who said hello to a complete stranger and welcomed possible embarrassment. Or even worse, you could be labeled as that strange person who stalks rather than goes to class each day, which would in turn become suicide for your reputation. No, I suppose it’s safe to say that most of the time I choose to forgo the raised eyebrows and the wordless question of “Who is this guy?” in favor of my cold and gray, yet nonetheless comforting, sidewalk.Their silent rejection, without even trying to get to know the person that I am, is hard to bear. The fact that you know there are only good intentions behind the smiling face that you hope to get a warm welcome from is not enough, in most cases, to get you beyond the deer-in-the-headlights look of fear and uncertainty. And even if you do say up front that all you want is another friend, it is automatically assumed that by friend you mean “friend.” And when that assumption is made, it’s as if you’ve contracted a serious case of the plague and have been blacklisted from certain circles of existence.Of course, though, there is the saving grace of the friendships that you already have. Every once in a while, you see a familiar face, smile and say the standard, “Hey, how are you,” maybe throw in a “You feeling alright” or “Keep it real,” and then move on. But what of the unfamiliar faces? What would happen if I just said “hello” to a new person each day? It could change a lot in the grand scheme of things. Or it could just be a new and interesting way to make the trek to class each day.But the greater question is not what the result of the introduction is; it is why we choose to let our fears of embarrassment and acceptance ruin any chance we have of meeting people that could potentially turn out to be great friends. Shouldn’t it be worth the risk of embarrassing yourself by throwing in the towel and finally admitting, “OK, yes, I want to meet you”?It should be worth the threat, especially during a time of your life that warrants meeting new and interesting people.So what’s wrong with that? Why can’t we just go up to someone without having to overcome the social stigma of an ulterior motive? And on the flip side, if we are ever the recipient of such an introduction, most of us assume the worst.Why is that?The reason: fear. We live in a society today that presumes the worst, expects the nightmares we see on the nightly news, and demands a written contract of good intentions before we begin to trust anyone.And of course, some instances promote that kind of behavior because we have been hurt by those we have trusted in the past. It is called a defense mechanism. Simply put, the past will always continue to haunt the future. And it gives us all the more reason to buckle down and continue to shun people because they are unfamiliar and therefore are untrustworthy.So, how do we cast aside this socially debilitating trend? Either I need a friendlier face or a new approach.Either way, we need to loosen up, cut through the confines of our social groups and open up to one another. I’m not sure how, but I’d be open to any suggestions that you might have.

Adam Cahill is a senior history and American studties major. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at cahill@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.