While rummaging through a storage closet under my basement stairs I found a box containing research papers, essays and memorabilia from graduate school. Barely visible between the pages of a case study and a course syllabus was an envelope containing a lengthy and heartfelt note from a classmate on whom I had apparently made quite an impression. It was clear from her thoughtful words and extremely accurate characterizations of my unique gifts that we had genuinely connected in some meaningful way.
If anyone had asked at the time, I’m sure we would have described ourselves as friends (in the pre-Facebook sense). I can only speculate that she would share my assessment because, sadly, I have had little interaction with her since, and but for this chance encounter with a document linked to our shared past, I’m not sure when or if she would have crossed my mind again.
As I look back on it through the lens of hindsight I’m reminded of how the camaraderie and collegial support of a cohort of strangers was transformed by time, common purpose and a shared experience into a lifeline of sorts that we had each used to get us through a wonderfully challenging and sometimes difficult season.
In his latest book, The Necessity of Strangers, Alan Gregerman explores the idea that strangers are often the key to helping us solve our most challenging problems and unlock our true potential. Gregerman argues that strangers may, in fact, be even more important contributors to our success than friends, not despite their differences, but precisely because of them.
The unfamiliar perspectives and lack of high regard for our most closely held ideas and beliefs that strangers introduce into our worlds often violate the boundaries of our carefully crafted comfort zones. If we welcome them with an open heart, an attentive spirit and genuine respect, we may find that the dreams, disappointments and desires we have in common will help us form bonds that are deep and meaningful, if only temporarily.
It’s impossible to know in advance who will be in our lives forever and who is just passing through. If we’re really lucky, perhaps the stranger we welcome will become the friend we didn’t know we were looking for, or better yet, be revealed as an angel in our midst.
I’m grateful that our lack of communication over the years doesn’t have the power to retroactively diminish the quality or depth of the relationship we shared at the time. While we may not be BFFs, we were certainly GFT (Good Friends Then), and that’s just fine with me.
James Woody is Executive Director of Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys.