I remember hearing on the radio once about this ancient Chinese belief that every person is connected to everyone they will ever meet, anyone that will ever be important to them, by invisible red threads. The belief says that the threads may stretch or tangle, but they will never break.
I was instantly captivated, not only by the paradox of its simultaneous powerful tangibility and impossible intangibility, but of the staggering way it hit me when I heard it, like I suddenly could sense all these tiny red strings winding out around me into the world. The red thread doesn’t just refer to the person we marry, or our own children, but to every person we meet in our life, to the people whose lives bump into ours, mix with ours, become part of ours. The red threads don’t wind their way around our ankles as we walk, don’t catch on us as we brush past things—the Chinese believe that they emanate from us from birth, from the moment we enter the world. As we age, with each passing year, the threads grow tighter, bringing us close to the people whose lives are destined to intertwine with ours in some way.
I remember sitting at the dinner table when I was younger — it may not even have actually been the dinner table, but my mind will always set conversations with my family there whether it is accurate or not — and listening to my mother tell stories about my father’s childhood as if she had been there, as if she had climbed up into the tree house in his backyard with her own two legs, as if she had been part of conversations with his brothers. However old I was I would always sit there, half listening, and imagine my two parents as children, thousands of miles away from each other, living their separate childhoods, completely and totally unbeknownst to each other. And then I thought about sitting at another dinner table some day, my dinner table, and telling a childhood story about someone who I did not yet know, someone who, perhaps at that very moment, was climbing into his tree house or talking to his brothers, or doing whatever thing would soon shift from an actual event and congeal into a dinnertime story told by someone else. Even though they didn’t know each other then, there was a red thread connecting the little girl cleaning her garage in New Jersey and the little boy goofing around in the neighborhood in Chicago. They couldn’t have seen the other end then, but it was there, off in the glimmering distance.
I met one of my best friends in the airport in Auckland, New Zealand, as we were about to embark on a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School. We didn’t know each other, we hadn’t met yet, and by some random coincidence we were walking through customs at the same time, both trying to figure out where the papers we had to fill out were. In a moment of simultaneous confusion we smiled at each other, acknowledging the shared experience of uncertainty in a strange place. She had short, shaggy blonde hair and was wearing a skirt and Chacos, which, had I been paying attention, might have been an indicator that this was a person who was also planning on spending three months in the wilderness. But I was caught up in trying to get through customs, and so we shared a brief smile only and then continued on our ways. We would meet for real a few minutes later when I pulled a gigantic 90 liter backpack off of the baggage carousel and she introduced herself as Justine, but for now, she was just a smiling stranger in the airport.
I couldn’t have known then, but someday in the future she and I would stand on a boulder in the middle of a snowy river valley and talk about our lives, someday she would sit on the floor of my living room in front of my fireplace petting my dog. The red thread was already there when we smiled at each other in the airport, was already beginning to wind us together before we even knew each other’s names, when we were just complete strangers passing each other, seemingly to never see one another again.
It’s fascinating to imagine the billions of people standing on the world with tiny little threads spinning out from their souls and tying them to each other, millions of tangling red webs crossing over and under and winding around each other. Thinking about it gives me the same feeling I get when I hear a stranger on the train or the sidewalk saying “I love to” into the phone, to some unseen person who means so much to them, some person I’ve never met and will likely never see, but I’ve caught this moment, this infinitesimal glimpse of the red thread that ties them together.
There are some threads we can see in front of us, some that are so tightly bound and thick by now that contemplating their existence is hardly a mind-bending exercise. The crimson binds that tie us to our parents, to our siblings, to our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. There are others, nearly as bright, that connect us to our closest friends, to the people who can see all the way through and into us, to the people who have influenced our thoughts and actions and feelings. But seeing these does not require imagination or faith.
It is the translucent threads, the gauzy, thin ones that wind into mist, into fog, into unseen places, that are the most difficult and yet the most incredible to comprehend. The red threads that have been there since birth, the red threads that billow out constantly, to people whose faces we don’t know, whose voices we wouldn’t recognize, whose names would be just a set of letters arranged in a particular order. To the people we haven’t met yet, to the people whose paths we have not yet crossed, but yet who exist and have been existing apart from us, unknown to us, souls tied ever so delicately to ours. Maybe the threads eventually become one, maybe they travel together for a while and then spin off in opposite directions, or maybe they only slightly glance off each other and an unseen point in the future. But they are there, out there, getting closer and tighter, every second.
How much easier it feels to fling ourselves out into the unknown, into a new place or stage of our lives, knowing those red threads are there, winding out into the future as they always have been, holding onto souls that will be waiting to catch us, teach us, touch us, change us.