The Writing on the Wall

By Amelia Wallworth

We’ve all seen them. Little messages from strangers. Maybe it’s on a bathroom stall or between the covers of a second-hand book. You’ll see them written in Sharpie on a streetcar chair or in chalk across the sidewalk. The fact is, they’re everywhere. You can’t avoid them. Upon reflection, they seem to be so omnipresent in our daily routines and yet we rarely give them a second thought. This, I think, is a true pity. These messages — what they depict and who wrote them and why — are a case study on human behaviour. They can tell us a lot about ourselves and the ways we connect with each other. So, I present to you, for perhaps the first time ever, a (somewhat) scholarly analysis of the writing on the wall. 

A Typology

Perhaps the most obvious category is that of humorous messages. The ones that leave you smiling to yourself. It could be a crude joke or a response to something someone else has written, maybe even a little cartoon. Some of the best jokes I’ve seen have been on a bathroom stall. I don’t know what it is about public washrooms, but they seem to bring out the comedic genius within us. These ones are, in my opinion, the best type. Whenever you read them you feel like you’re in on some inside joke. Because these messages are so often left in private places — especially a washroom stall — it makes them feel personal. As though the person who wrote it left it to make you—and you alone—smile. 

The second type consists of serious messages. These are often sad, left by someone who was very upset about something, but mysterious. They’re usually nondescript, only a sentence — something like “I hate it here” or “Everything sucks.” Really, they could be written by anyone about anything. Nonetheless, you can’t help but feel for the person and whatever it is they’re going through. You read that and hope that, even though you have no idea who they are, it will all work out for them. 

The third category is that of the positive message. The one that tells you that “You got this!” and “You look amazing!” These remind me of those little heart-shaped candies that have little Valentine’s messages on them. They’re the most generic notes — “Be Mine” or “Today’s Your Day” — but, for some reason, I always think that they’re true. I will be yours! Today is my day! The same goes for those messages on the walls. Of course, they’re just words on a wall, but it’s more fun to believe that they’re some act of fate. That message was meant for you to see, because, hey, why not? 

An Analysis

We’ve all heard the endless debates on human nature. Are people inherently good or inherently bad? Selfish or selfless? Independent or relational? So what does the writing on the wall have to say about this? 

Firstly, I think it shows us that we don’t always do things solely in our own interest. These messages are the perfect example of a non-transactional gesture. You write something, leave it there, and never learn who ends up seeing it and how they end up relating to it. When you write on the wall, you expect nothing. 

I also like to think it tells us that we’re a lot more connected than we tend to believe. We write these messages because, in one way or another, we feel compelled to leave little pieces of wisdom, humour, and advice — really, little pieces of ourselves — for some future person whom we’ll never put a face to. We are relational beings, we want to feel connected. This may be a small and unconventional connection, but it’s a connection nonetheless. 

If I’m being honest, I think these debates on human nature are counterproductive. For one, I find it hard to believe that there’s some inherent essence which is universal to 8 billion people. And even if there were, we’d never be able to prove it, let alone agree on it. 

Perhaps it’s not the question itself that I don’t buy into, but rather, it’s the way we go about trying to answer it. I don’t have to tell you that we all experience life in our own unique way — that might be the one universal truth I can get behind — so why do we strive to find some one-size-fits all answer as to what a person “is”? Wouldn’t it make more sense if instead we just accepted that each and everyone of us is going to have our own answer for that question? So while I can tell you that I think the writing on the wall tells us that people can act in unselfish ways or that we are relational beings, that’s really just my interpretation. If I were to follow my own advice and come up with a personal answer to the human nature debate, I would say that we’re all just silly little people writing silly little messages to each other on random walls.  

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