Have you ever wondered how strangers see you, how some random person’s description of you differs from how you see yourself?
I hadn’t wondered that, at least until last week when I came across the harrowing tale of a search for a woman who went missing from her tour group on a trip through a volcanic region of southern Iceland. The incident happened in 2012 but recently gained new life following a news report that circulated on Twitter.
The story began with a bus driver contacting police to alert them to the missing woman. A coast guard helicopter was called into action, but conditions were foggy and the rescue helicopter was delayed. The tour group, knowing that time was of the essence on a search like this, took it upon themselves to go looking for the woman together on foot.
This being a volcanic region of Iceland, I picture something akin to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Here we have a poor woman stumbling through a craggy, rock-strewn hellscape, pausing frequently to hide from roving gangs of orcs and Björks.
There were 50 or so people from the tour taking part in the search, all looking for a woman described as “Asian, about 160 cm, in dark clothing and speaks English well.”
The search went on well into the night, until approximately 3 a.m., at which point it became clear that the missing woman had been there all along, taking part in the search for herself.
The confusion apparently arose from the fact that the woman changed her clothing and freshened up during a pit stop, and a faulty head count was also part of the equation. But the most fascinating part is that the woman heard the description of the missing person and did not recognize herself as the lost soul.
Asian? That could mean a lot of things. Speaks English well? Maybe she was being modest, or a little self-conscious about a few grammatical errors or mispronounced words. 160 cm? What’s with the metric?
Maybe it just all didn’t match up with how she pictured herself, which got me thinking: If I walked away from a tour group amongst the volcanoes of Iceland, how would the bus driver describe me? How would he describe you? Would you recognize yourself?
In my mind, this is how the distress signal would look for me: “MISSING: Devilishly handsome 30-something chap wearing a rakish beard and delightful cardigan that just screams laid-back confidence. He’s white, but he never takes his privilege for granted. Well-spoken and taller than he looks, be careful if you find him because he can charm the fangs off a cobra.”
Whereas, this might be the actual bulletin: “MISSING: Balding, bearded middle-aged Canadian man. Very white. Strangely quiet until second beer. About 175 cm, wearing old-person’s clothing. Speaks English OK.”
Would I hear that and immediately think, oh, they’re looking for me? Or would I join the hunt for this obviously-not-me guy who sounds like such a drip that we should perhaps consider just leaving him there in Iceland?
And how would other people describe themselves? Who do you think would describe themselves this way?: “MISSING: A very stable genius. Like, a very smart person. Knows more about not getting lost in Iceland than probably anybody. Very big hands. Yuuuuge hands. Definitely not afraid of walking down stairs. Or up stairs. Or anywhere on stairs. White. Powerful.”
Contrast that with: “MISSING: Giant bag of mayonnaise. Orange. Extremely combustible. Do not approach. Probably somewhere yelling at a TV. If found please return to owner, Vladimir Putin.”
Or this: “MISSING: Feminist. Woke leader. Sunny ways.”
Compared to this: “MISSING: Very good looking man, for a politician. Generally kind and compassionate and WAIT WHAT? He wore brownface?! At a party for school teachers? Bro.”
It’s an interesting exercise, considering how the world might see us compared to how we see ourselves. And maybe, just like our missing woman in Iceland, seeing things from a different perspective might help you, in the end, find yourself.
Remember though: always be true to who you really are. And please, watch out for Björk.
• • •
Somehow my column was chosen to fill this corner of the paper that was occupied, for almost three decades, by cultured curmudgeon Trevor Lautens, who finally set down his quill last month. I won’t be covering many of the same topics (most of my opinions are about Game of Thrones), but I hope I can carry on his love of language and the twists and turns our words can take on the way to a point.
Like a B-Line bus, Trevor’s columns always arrived on time, were full of colourful characters, and got the people of West Vancouver all riled up. It was quite a ride.
Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. firstname.lastname@example.org