Train of thought artwork under the U of O's LRT station
Train of Thought, the artwork by Derek Michael Besant from 2018 adorns the walls of the tunnel under the U of O's LRT station. Photo: Parker Townes/Fulcrum
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The phrase “If they wanted to, they would” has been popularized unfoundedly.

There is something innately beautiful about crowded spaces. Many people are uncomfortable in a crowded hallway, bus, campus store, or concert hall, though. Some might be perturbed by germs, unpleasantly close proximity, and uncomfortable silence — as I am, sometimes. Most times, though, I love it. I find strangers so incredibly fascinating. Though an arguably naïve and obnoxiously extroverted take, I can’t help but see people as potential friends. Like an overzealous golden retriever, I want to say hello to all the people I pass on the street — which, by the way, is arguably normal in small town Thunder Bay, but feels obnoxious in the hustle and bustle of Sandy Hill.

Consider the friends you already have. Whether it be by destiny or chance, a specific series of events has had to occur for you to meet. 

Take my friends, for example — my best friends at the U of O were all made by a series of fortunate events. The roommate I was randomly assigned in first year chickened out before moving in and lived with her hometown best friend, instead.

I don’t even blame her at all because the girl she ditched me for ended up being so cool, she’s now one of my best friends — I would’ve ditched me too (I have a tattoo appointment booked with her this month!). I spent every day of last year with the both of them, plus their childhood best friend who they just so happened to stumble into, too. I became best friends with the girl who lived a street over from me for eight years in Thunder Bay only once we ended up in the same hallway at our residence. Life is funny like that, isn’t it?

So, who can blame me for wondering if I’ll find my next best friend in a bookstore, on an airplane, or even on a street corner? 

Such is how I found two of my roommates and I don’t regret it at all.

This feeling of fascination with strangers and crowds is known as ‘sonder’. Sonder is the humbling realization, despite all your efforts to master the main character cocktail — which may include a cute thrifted tote bag, unique fashion sense, and a niche music taste — everyone is the main character of their own lives. Some are in sitcoms, others in romantic comedies, many in coming-of-age movies — the list goes on. They’re hosts to many intricate thoughts, experiences, friends, and families. They might share experiences, interests, and even friends with you, if only you stopped and asked.

Next time you hop on the LRT, pay attention to the ‘weird tunnel art’. Though some interpret it as creepy, I think it encapsulates this feeling of sonder perfectly. Train of Thought, the artwork by Derek Michael Besant from 2018, features 37 blurred faces representing the feeling of fleeting encounters with people who have intricate thoughts and lives of which we may never be privy.

My fascination with sonder and crowds has resulted in a rather miserable couple of years during the pandemic. To think, this time last year, a slightly more doe-eyed version of me naively moved into Henderson residence, excited for a year of socially distanced socialization.

I did make friends, but I missed out on the experience of having a crowded residence hall, scrambling to find a place to sit in the cafeteria, or being one face of a hundred in a large lecture hall.

Throughout elementary school, the cafeteria was a rather amusing place to be. Last year, it was much lonelier. Sure, I managed to make a good group of friends. But, with two metres between each of our five tables, we had a hard time communicating.

With social distancing in mind, social bubbles of a handful of people were the most practical way to make the most of our year. Inadvertently, cliques developed and gone was the atmosphere of everyone wanting a new friend. To paint a picture for those who have seen the cafeteria in its usual occupancies, there was often a single-digit number of people frequenting the facility.

The cafeteria was often empty last year due to the lack of people on campus. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum

This is generally how spaces on and off campus felt last year. Study spaces like FSS, Tabaret Lawn, or even the LRT, once social areas, felt isolating most of the time. Thinking back to riding the bus as a kid, everyone used to talk to each other. Simple as that.

The problem is, when you’re an adult, the concept of chit-chat seems to be tedious or impolite. I love when someone else strikes up a conversation with me, but I am often too afraid of taking up someone else’s time to strike one myself. In the fast-paced semi-adult life I lead, everyone is moving from point A to point B in a hurry. You pass tens or hundreds of people on your morning commute. If you were to stop and smell the roses, you may find yourself one friend richer.

I believe the phrase “if they wanted to, they would,” has been popularized unfoundedly. Often, I want to — I really do! But I don’t do it. I see a cute guy and I want to say “hi”. I don’t. I like a stranger’s earrings. I overthink complimenting them … they’re already out of sight. I may think about the cute stranger, the pretty earrings, the myriad of passing faces who I came across during the day for the rest of my day. Very often, these people live on in my mind, or even in the minds of my friends. I can’t tell you how many strangers have become permanent edifices in the map of who’s who on campus. With such few people in the cafeteria, we were familiar with many of them with covert personalized nicknames.

The guy who looked a little bit too much like my best friend’s long-distance boyfriend — she had a little reaction every time she saw him. The boy who was a bit too picky about his food, whom we teased for always being high maintenance. If we were behind him in line, we could expect to hear meticulous instructions on how he’d like his food. The girl who always had really cool, unique outfits — whom I actually did compliment on one occasion. The guy who had a stylish fashion taste and styled his hair with braids and beads, until one day he didn’t! My friends and I noticed and discussed why he stopped and if he ever started again, concerned about if something had happened. The kid who always wore a backpack — I mean, always. A frequent topic of conversation for us was theorizing what was actually in his backpack.

However, perhaps we should have asked and gained a friend out of it. Maybe we should have complimented the beads and braids, told the guy how much he resembled someone we know or approached more of these people.

We probably existed in other peoples’ lives in the same way and were none the wiser. Maybe they had nicknames for us, good or bad, and we will exist as the fleeting impressions we left.

As usual, September has tiptoed back into our lives unexpectedly, and only somewhat welcome. September has an unmatched ability to show up on your doorstep, unannounced, disrupting all your best laid summer plans. With the school year just around the corner and people returning or joining campus for the first time, I believe everyone will experience the feeling of sonder to some degree. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the realization our existences are just one of billions and feel lost in the overall vastness of the world. Rather than drowning in this harsh epiphany, embrace and harness the empowering capacity of sonder to say hi to your socially distanced seat mate, learn a thing or two, and make a friend out of a stranger.