Late one night last week, while walking down Elm Street, I stopped dead in my tracks for a couple of seconds as a woman ran past me on the other side of the street. About 20 feet behind her sauntered two men who appeared to be of her same age. My immediate response was concern for her safety.
The snapshot upset me. A woman running away from two men late at night? It did not look good.
Before I knew it, they were well behind me. Though I had paused momentarily, I said nothing. I had found no logical justification to break down the wall between my “business” and someone else’s everyday life. Most likely, the interaction I witnessed was a joke of some kind, for I had seen no clear terror in the woman’s facial expression. Most likely, they all knew each other and were friends. Most likely, based on common constructions that seemed to fit the scenario and which immediately entered my mind, one of the men was the woman’s lover.
Do these practical conclusions strip my initial reaction of validity? Apparently I thought so at the time. I doubted the legitimacy of my personal perspective, and I opted for silence.
But hindsight makes me doubt my reaction. According to common standards of practicality, it would be natural to assume that I was hallucinating or decontextualizing the scenario. But although my personal lens must be acknowledged, I do not think it should be replaced by a perspective with just as many inherent biases.
I pretended I had not witnessed those three seconds of interaction. But I had, and I had been made very uncomfortable. A voice within me — which was not my own — informed me I must have been paranoid to question the normality of such an event. Refusing to adopt a predominant view based on widespread standards of rationality almost automatically brands an individual as paranoid or extreme. Like many people, to an extent, I force myself through discomfort, censor my own observations and disconnect from the actuality of how I feel.
Three nights after this incident, I was jarred by an angry male voice on the street outside my window, a sound that automatically freezes me. I heard a woman yell at him and tell him to get away from her. I went to the window and witnessed the fight from inside, watching several people on the street go about their business and pretend that nothing was going on. Though the argument had immediately unsettled me, and though the woman had continued to insist that this man leave her alone, I resisted the urge to call the police until he began forcibly walking her down the street.
That hesitation made me feel horrible — why had I not trusted my initial instinct? Must I wait until I witness physical violence firsthand to engage directly with my own feelings? Isn’t it just as crazy for me to justify these brief experiences — which disturbed me — as it would be for me to draw extreme, negative conclusions about them based on the small fragments I witnessed?
In situations such as walking down the street that night, it is only if my intuitions ultimately prove legitimate and rational that I can escape the stigma of paranoia. However, by the time a definitively “bad” outcome is imminent, if it ever becomes certain, it is often too late.
A full-fledged and undiscriminating advocacy of paranoia is problematic, since a great deal of, for example, the Bush administration’s success hinges upon a manipulation of people’s fears and a use of paranoia in order to dictate people’s actions. However, there is a way to embrace what would commonly be called paranoia without living in fear and without being consumed by it. I refuse to overlook or brush off my own observations. I refuse to ignore the implicit or let its power pass me by.
I recognize the dangers of granting my subjectivity the status of imperialist authority but aim to constantly question where the line between paranoia and responsibility falls. This is a huge challenge to determine even in our everyday endeavors, because the line shifts along with our context. The standards are never entirely objective — there can be no unchanging rule, no equation to memorize and regurgitate. However, we can learn to challenge automated or easy solutions that present themselves at any given moment. It is particularly relevant as we approach National Coming Out Day tomorrow that we acknowledge what we do not know as well as what others do not see or hear unless we stand up and break silences.
Loren Krywanczyk is a senior in Silliman College.