Talking about strangers..
There exists a Facebook group for people who fall in love with strangers while travelling on public transport. They report not just an idle curiosity about someone who looks vaguely attractive but a full-blown fantasy. Many start dreaming of a life together with a family, others no doubt think of steamier hookups. But falling in love is what it feels like. While the passion lasts it takes over the imagination and feelings and there is a painful sense of separation and loss when the person you were going to spend your life with gets off at their stop without looking at you.
Hearing of this, I was reminded of a youthful tendency to this kind of fantasy that I used to have while travelling on the London Tube. (Since starting to meditate I mostly use the time on the train to meditate which is more productive and less agitating.) The external, public-space objects of such fantasy are, of course, strangers; but something about them resonates so powerfully with us that we feel we know them – or almost know them – and an intimate relationship seems a real possibility.
Something of this response is genuinely intuitive. We are usually very quick to categorise strangers that we meet: tabloid psychology says it takes seven seconds to form the first (and that becomes a lasting) impression. But apart from the intuition we have about people communicated by their body-language, appearance, tone of voice and eye-contact, most of the falling in love syndrome on public transport is sheer fantasy. We cannot control whom we feel attracted to but we can choose if we fantasise about them.
It probably wouldn’t happen to someone who had just fallen in love with a person who was already a real person in their life. If it happens too much to someone in a longterm relationship it might suggest an issue, a need to escape. Fantasy rushes in to fill a void. It is a forgiveable indulgence but a dangerous one nonetheless. We may not know the void is there or we may have learned how to deny it. Seeing an attractive stranger might simultaneously trigger the awareness of something missing in our life and offer a fantasy to fill that sense of lack.
Until real contact is made we cannot call this the ‘kindness of strangers’ because it is only in our head and revolves around our own craving for fulfilment. There is yet no gift of self, no element of sacrificial love. As we prepare for Holy Week’s deep contemplation of the person of Jesus it might be a better use of time, instead of scanning your fellow-passengers, to reflect on him. He is in many ways a stranger to us. Yet he is one who offers the chance of a fuller intimacy than we could imagine.