Painting of a cottage

It’s the little things and experiences that lay the groundwork for connection with others

C/O @british library

What is it, exactly, that bonds us to others?

For many students, we find a connection to those around us through school. Whether it be the people that we meet during Welcome Week, in classes, through clubs or through mutual acquaintances, it’s safe to say that there’s ample opportunity to make connections in your time at McMaster University.

But what exactly separates your best, lifelong friends from the random dude whose contact is still in your phone from your first-year chemistry class?

But what exactly separates your best, lifelong friends from the random dude whose contact is still in your phone from your first-year chemistry class? 

I’d beg to argue that it’s a third thing. Mutual, shared points of connection between people that bond us in joint wonder. For some, our connection through school is a third thing. For others, the third thing is a sport, the arts or an experience. Whatever it may be, it’s our third things that truly create lasting relationships.

Now, let me give credit where credit is due. The idea of a third thing isn’t exactly mine

I recently reconnected with an acquaintance from high school who shared the same set of lived experiences that I did but still managed to seldom intersect with my life. We reconnected through a class discussion in breakout rooms, as people do in Zoom university. We lived adjacent but separate lives in a high school of 1,200 people, but our paths finally crossed in a university with a population of 30,000. What are the odds?

We instantly clicked. I think we’d spoken a total of once before — if that? But we were instantly on the same wavelength. Our conversation quickly veered to speaking about our high school experiences and even though we had hardly crossed paths then, our experiences were astonishingly similar.

We reminisced about how absurdly hyper-competitive our high school experience was, with our academically driven group of peers. We joked that the most often used pickup line in those halls was “so, what’s your average?” We laughed at how the less sleep you got, the bigger the flex. We agreed about how you get a choice of two of the following three: good grades, good health or a good social life.

These were things that we just thought were acceptable at the time. It was a school environment that perpetuated hustle culture. Where to be the best, you had to work the hardest and grind the most. It was stifling and absurd. I realize now that it was one of the only things that connected me to my friends at the time.

As we chatted in our breakout room from the comfort of our bedrooms in our hometown of Ottawa, we discovered a shared love of reading. She shared with me this beautiful piece of prose that we both connected to instantly.

It was a piece by Donald Hall, called The Third Thing. Hall wrote it at his wife’s bedside, as she died from leukemia. Throughout the piece, he describes this concept of the titular third thing: a singular idea or point of connection between yourself and another person.

“Most of the time [my wife and I’s] gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture of contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention . . . John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly,” wrote Hall.

“Most of the time [my wife and I’s] gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture of contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention . . . John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly.”

Donald Hall

Ironically enough, The Third Thing became our third thing, for a moment. As was our shared love of reading and inspiration we drew from literature.

For those at our high school, we agreed, their third thing was school itself. By no means do I want to invalidate sharing the connection of school and education with friends and colleagues. However, we both found that we’d lost that connection with our peers. It was the first time I realized that I’d begun to fall out with those that I used to call my best friends, as our third thing disappeared.

By losing that third thing, we had nothing left with so many of our old friends. It was the only point of connection that we truly had. Without the pressures and stress and competition, the connections fell apart. What’s left of a friendship when there’s nothing to bond over?

But with one connection gone comes the opportunity to strengthen what’s left. With some of my friends, our third thing is screaming Hamilton lyrics at the top of our lungs on road trips. Midnights spent loitering around suburbs. A mutual hatred of the existence of nickels. A crushing obsession with Breath of the Wild. Crocs as our footwear of choice. The list goes on and on.

But with one connection gone comes the opportunity to strengthen what’s left. With some of my friends, our third thing is screaming Hamilton lyrics at the top of our lungs on road trips. Midnights spent loitering around suburbs. A mutual hatred of the existence of nickels. A crushing obsession with Breath of the Wild. Crocs as our footwear of choice. The list goes on and on.

Each and every third thing brings us closer together. These small moments, ideas and figments of friendships past keep us going strong.

As a first-year student, I know it’s more difficult than ever to meet others right now. Getting to know people can be awkward and uncomfortable in a normal year, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.

But I assure you, third things are there and ever-present. I’ve found third things with newfound online friends in the form of our mutual shared experience of writing for the Sil, which turned into joking over a professor’s love of Animal Crossing. I’ve found them in a mutual more-than-dislike of online schooling, turned into a love of musical theatre, turned into a discussion on choosing favourite basketball players based on their wholesome-ness. I’ve found a third thing in the poem The Third Thing itself.

Please, I urge you to find a third thing and hold it close. Hold to it for dear life and never let it go once you find it.

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