When I stumbled upon Secret app–which enables people to share their secrets anonymously, or PostSecret years ago–where people posted their most private thoughts and confessions on a piece of a postcard or those sites or apps where you get to post or pin your missed connections stories, I could not help to feel the surge of jealousy inside of me because I always wished that I was the one who invented such things.
I guess I have soft spots for making connections with strangers; listening to them pouring out their thoughts and feelings on the web, and wanting to text them right away to say that they are not alone, or that I feel that, too, or that they speak right through me and touch me deep inside and… can I just know you? Like those people, I befriended from a tawdry pen-pal site because they write the most interesting introduction, or the people behind those blogs–with posts that never failed to stir my mind, or those people who type something deep on Twitter, or the writers of my favorite books who write some of my most favorite lines…
And sometimes, I reach out. I give likes and leave comments. I add-friend or follow. And I do send emails. I tell them how much I love their thoughts, or the things they write–and sometimes they reply back and we talk to each other back and forth and become friends and send each other emails every now and then or decide to meet up if we happen to live in the same continent, and I am still constantly amazed on the fact that we connect from strangers to friends (or strangers to semi-strangers) via a random website.
But of course, sometimes, I get nothing but silence. It feels a little like being rejected, but I am trying to think that they must be busy or my email gets into their spam folder or they get 10,000 mails or comments a day or something like that, to make me feel better. It feels like smiling at someone next to you on a train ride somewhere, saying “Hello, good morning!” and that person looks at you as if you’re crazy and immediately looks away. But I guess we just need to be okay with that.
I feel a certain attachment to people I have never met in person, just because we have shared our deepest thoughts and feelings through the words we typed to each other or simply because we exchanged a simple moment once, where it seemed like we actually “see” each other through our outer shells and that one time was enough.
I sometimes wonder how Cissy is doing in Texas–and whether one day I can meet her and talk to her in front of her house, drinking iced tea, because she feels like a distant aunt to me. I am still torn with Ned Vizzini’s death, remembering the day when I finished reading It’s Kind of A Funny Story and the day when he posted my Brainmap picture on his Flickr account. I still find it amazing when I get to see Veny somewhere around Jakarta for our full Saturday together: just eating, talking, and reading books–knowing that I simply knew her from Twitter. I am surprised to find myself corresponding with Ty (one of the friends from the tawdry pen-pal site I have never met) again after more than 10 years and naturally catching up where we left off.
Sometimes, as I sit in the backseat of a cab during a hellish traffic jam–surrounded by the skyscrapers and office buildings with thousands of their tiny windows–just like M, I imagine people in their cubicles, in the bathroom, in the elevator, desperately trying to reach out and connect and talk to someone without the fear of being judged, and sometimes I feel so helpless because I don’t know who they are and what they are struggling with and how I can reach out to them; and even if I can reach out to them, there’s really nothing much that I can do.
I am not a psychotherapist or something. I cannot give them good advice or make their pain disappear or help them to face their fears or forget the things that drag them down. And I have no idea what I can do. I just feel like letting them know that I am here and that I “see” them, and I won’t say that I understand or feel what they’re going through because most probably, I don’t, and I won’t pretend I do. I cannot say that I understand, but I can simply listen. And I don’t even know if that’s good enough; or even if people actually try to reach out–because maybe they don’t, but I always want to believe that we are all trying to reach out, wanting to make that connection that’s way deeper than sipping coffee talking about world news, watching movies, going to parties, or traveling to faraway beaches…
Sometimes I feel like bringing cardboard with me that says YOU CAN TALK TO ME and just set it on the table when I am lazying in a coffee shop somewhere. Sometimes I feel like sitting in a bar, ordering drinks, and having the courage to ask the old guy sitting next to me, “How’s life?”. Sometimes I feel like waving to a stranger and asking them sincerely, “Hey, how are you? Like, really, how are you?”.
There were times years ago when I glued my face to my computer screen from 11 AM to 5 AM the next day, talking to strangers with my English dictionary by my side, pouring out my thoughts, my dreams, my fears, and translating their replies before replying back. There were times years ago when I checked my inbox and found some new messages from friends I had never met (I didn’t even know if some of them are real) and felt like I wasn’t alone.
There were times years ago when I didn’t feel good enough to be myself in the real world and could only feel safe to be myself behind my desktop, inside chat rooms and pen pal sites: having a name, but remaining somewhat anonymous. There were times years ago when I came out of my shell, just a little bit every single day, trying to be more of my screen name in the actual world I live in, and try to feel comfortable with myself–unplugged.
There were times when the web (and the random strangers inside it) became my safety net; and until today, to some extent, I guess it still is.