Stranger Danger

jury selection

I went for a walk this afternoon. I enjoy fall days and for the last few weeks, I have went out to the Des Plaines River Trails and walked at least seven miles. Since I don’t have the ability to run that far anymore (yet), walking that far is all I have. I put on my headphones, grab a bottle of water, and just walk. I┬áhave a whole list of podcasts that I need to catch up on so I can stay up to date with the political, scientific, and just fun news. Two hours of walking works perfectly for that.

My mind wanders as I walk through the brown leaves. I think about work; I think about life; I worry about things; and I listen to the stories in my ears. I find it incredibly relaxing, but also enjoyable. There is something perfect about walking alone with a slight chill in the air and nothing to stop you.

I passed about ten people all morning. Most people walked in pairs, some with dogs. Some rode bikes. And one man was running. There was nothing unique about the path or anything interesting besides a large number of deer running around. Overall, it was uneventful.

But as I got closer to my car, I saw a father walking with his son. They were walking towards me and I smiled. The father’s immediate response was to put his hand on his son’s back and move forward. It was a very defensive gesture and when I was about one-hundred feet away, I turned around and noticed that the hand was no longer there.

I probably shouldn’t read too much into things like that but it always troubles me when people just assume a stranger is a danger. Of course there are bad people out there and I would be lying if I didn’t think at least a few times on my walk that someone could be in the woods, grab me, and I would never be heard from again. But there are also casual interactions with people that I will never understand why we become defensive.

If we were at a mall, the father would not do that. If we were at a Chipotle, he would not do that. But in an open forest preserve, people assume that there is a likelihood, this person I don’t know will steal my child or try to hurt one of us. I have experienced the same gestures in parks.

Maybe it is because I don’t have a child of my own that I don’t understand this reaction. I would like to believe that I would not have that knee-jerk reaction to someone I don’t know and honestly, I don’t think I would as I like to assume that another person is naturally good unless shown otherwise.

We all experience strange behavior based on who we are. One reason I don’t like giving away candy on Halloween, for example, is that I have gotten strange looks from parents in the past, as if I am some sort of leech. Or some sort of Boo Radley.

I wish we didn’t live in a world where a father would see a random person just minding their own business and smiling and didn’t think that this person could come after my child. I wish I understood why people always jump to the conclusion that a solitary person is trouble.

As strange as it seems, for over two hours, I was in a peaceful and pleasant piece of mind, but the minute that happened, it ruined it for me. I felt bad. I felt bad for this father for being so untrustworthy. I felt bad for me because as a childless, unmarried man in my thirties, people make assumptions. And I feel bad for our society where we fear everyone until they have convinced us that they are okay.

We don’t talk to each other on buses or trains. We don’t make conversation when we walk or run by ourselves. And maybe it was the headphones – I know those things are a menace to social interactions.

Brian always smiles when I wave at someone on the street when we walk somewhere even when I don’t know them or how I say hello to anyone we pass. I try to smile at strangers because I like to smile. And in return, we always seem to meet interesting people who like to talk to us. We talked to a couple as we ferried across Lake Champlain. Some old ladies showed us all their favorite spots of a toy train showcase in Madison. We met a woman from St. Louis who traveled by herself to Salem, MA to relive her youth. And each of these encounters enhanced our experiences. We may not stay in touch with any of these people but they added something to my life for a few minutes and will always be in my head as people I have met. I have lots of stories of people doing this and making conversation with me and maybe it is because I try to be open to that possibility by not showing defensive maneuvers.

I guess I just wish more people would try that. Most people are good. And you never know what you may find out about someone. It could give you a whole new perspective on life.

So, though, this hurt me, I know it won’t change me. There are too many interesting people out there for me to change how I act based on people who live every day in fear. I hope others move past fear as well.

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