On Missed Connections

Sometimes the most brilliant ideas come when we don't connect with other people.

In 1274, a 9-year-old boy pulled open an enormous iron gate and hurried toward the courtyard of an estate house outside Florence, Italy. The annual May Day celebration was just beginning, and he didn’t want to be late. He arrived to find lavishly dressed couples strolling past tables covered in meat, fruit, and wine. And then he saw the girl. Her name was Beatrice di Folco Portinari, and she was 8 years old. For a moment, their eyes met, and then each turned away and disappeared into the crowd.

Although the boy neither spoke a word to the girl, nor heard her speak, Beatrice would haunt him the rest of his life—and later inspire the most important work in Italian literature, and, arguably, the world. The boy’s name was Dante Alighieri, and he wrote the epic poem The Divine Comedy. That fleeting moment he shared with Beatrice at a 13th-century party is now the most famous missed connection in history.

Back in Dante’s era, of course, there weren’t any resources for finding people after the fact: When connections were missed, they stayed that way. They provided fodder for myth, muse, and mystery—and ignited imaginations for years to come. Not anymore. Today, we have the tools to track people down. We are compelled to solve puzzles. We want to know who you are, and we’re willing to go to great lengths to find out. We leave no moment unverified, no rock unturned. We even post desperate pleas online.

Hundreds of thousands of missed connections (such as the ones on this page from May 21, 2011) are posted on Craigslist.org and other classified-ad sites every day, each seeking to find a person with whom someone has shared a mystical moment, to verify that it was real.

And that’s where everything goes sour. In an informal poll among friends of people who have either posted to or read the Missed Connections section on Craigslist, everyone who pursued and actually met someone via the site was terribly disappointed. “Oh, dammit, she was shorter than I remember.” “He talks nonstop.” “She grits her teeth.” “He is insane.” In the seeker’s imagination, these people were perfect. But once the unrequited became requited, their imperfections became apparent. The mystery was lost, the allure ruined forever.

That’s because what makes a missed connection so rich, transcendent, and mysterious has nothing to do with who the person is and everything to do with who the person could be—and the endless possibilities that play out in our imaginations during and after the experience. It is not knowing that makes the experience so special and the moment eternal, widening the aperture of life.

It worked for Dante, anyway. Just imagine what it might do for you.

James Nestor has written for Dwell, Interior Design, Outside, The New York Times, and other publications. His second book, Out There: A Year in the Weird Science of Enlightenment, will be released in 2012.