September 12, 2022

DO | Stranger Danger and the Case for Love

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It’s an unfortunate reality that not everyone can get along. Sometimes, certain people just seem to get on our nerves for whatever unexplainable reason. Whether it’s the way they subtly jab at your embarrassing ID photo before the social distance has adequately closed, their poker-faced reactions to your profoundly clever jokes or just the general way they carry themselves, there are times we feel unjustly irked by someone without any real wrongdoing to plead our case with.

Although I am using the word “we,” I can’t help but wonder if I am alone in my irrational disdain of certain unsuspecting, kinda-strangers. I’m not a particularly negative person, but I still find myself taking note of these small orange flags quite often. I do my best not to let them manifest into action, but still my mind still clings to whatever weird look or mildly off-setting comment is able to set off my ick alarm.

What probably started as an evolutionary instinct to beware of potential threats to our safety has now developed into a full-on judicial branch running inside our heads. We’re put into awkward positions where we feel that someone is unpleasant to be around, despite the fact that we haven’t been wronged by them, nor do we have any reason to believe we ever would be.

I’m sure many of you reading are already thinking of some people that you harbor a one-sided dislike for. At least, I hope you all are, otherwise this column may have just exposed me as a full-time narcissist. Regardless, I can think of a few examples of encounters with strangers that have left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The other night, when I was preparing my nightly instant calorie bomb in the dorm kitchenette (I opted for 비빔면), I overheard a group of students having an unsavory conversation at the table just outside the kitchen door. They had seen me walk into the kitchen, which made me all the more surprised about how uncensored they were, knowing a stranger could hear every word of it. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say their deliberations were gonadal in nature. 

After the initial surprise, I walked away from my spontaneous eavesdropping feeling more than a little judgmental toward my loose-lipped cohabitants. My mind was racing with criticisms of the lifestyle they must be living and the sorts of reputations they wished to project onto the world. 

I would hardly call myself bilingual, but one advantage of my broken Korean is the ability to insult people under my breath without them knowing, merely for the entertainment of my harshly critical inner voice. At a school like Cornell, though, it’s a habit that’s bound to get me in trouble one of these days.

I could have easily mentally tuned out their voices or just turned up my music to drown out their irksome conversation, but I kept listening, almost searching for more reasons to dislike this group of people whom I didn’t know. There was no purpose behind my grumbling, nor did I have any reason to think I’d ever knowingly cross paths with any of them again; it simply felt good to dwell on those thoughts of animus. 

This is where our search for red flags usually ends up taking us. It’s not like I had any intention of doing anything productive with my negative thoughts. Perhaps a nobler version of me would have joined in on their conversation, hoping to turn it in a direction that I saw more fitting. My condemnation started and ended in my own head, allowing me all of the satisfying harshness of being mean without any of the motivation to do something positive to change it. 

Negativity in its most self-serving form is also at its least productive. Lingering on what we dislike about someone solves nothing, even if it feels good. We’ve seen this dead-end animosity come to define much of social media, where an emphasis on consumption without meaningful response trains us to examine problems with no intent on finding solutions. It feels great to think about why you dislike someone, but it’s a lot less fun to consider that your emotions toward that person can, and should, evolve past disdain.

We don’t all need to be relentlessly positive, but we need to train ourselves not to idle in our negative thoughts. Treating someone with love and seeing their flaws shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but that combination is difficult for our emotionally immature minds to handle sometimes. Besides, if we held ourselves to the same standard that we hold random, probably intoxicated strangers to, then none of us would feel all that worthy of anything. Let’s do ourselves a favor and try to make love our default.

Noah Do ‘24 is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Noah’s Arc runs every other Sunday this semester.