Last night at dinner, we were swapping stories with friends about recent, memorable interactions with strangers. And so, I wanted to share a few thoughts about strangers today that I’ve been pondering lately. Especially in the times we live, where a double-whammy of decorum and fear can keep us from engaging with the people that we meet when we’re walkin’ down the street.
Wherever I Go
I’ve been told I have a tendency of meeting interesting and eccentric people wherever I go. I think it’s true — at least I see a pattern. I’ve met a board game inventor who was driving my taxi (I didn’t totally believe him until he whipped out the reputable Ravensberger games catalog – while zipping along – and pointed to his bio). I’ve met a professor of estuarial sciences on a train (estuaries happen to be my favorite bodies of water, so that was thrilling as you can imagine), and a Blue Man (who still had some blue on his face from the previous night’s performance) on a plane. You just never know who you’re going to meet out there in the wide world.
Part of that is apparently my uncanny ability to pick public transportation seating, but most of it is that I am simply surrounded by interesting humans each and every day. All of us are.
Humans, each with their own stories, joys and sorrows of which we know absolutely nothing are everywhere we look.
We call them strangers, precisely because we don’t know any of these things about them, so they are strange (unknown) to us. And most of the time they are nameless, faceless extras to our lead on the stage of our lives. They too are usually busy playing the lead on their own stages at the very same time, which is part of what makes rush hour such a nightmare. And so we remain – all unknown to one another.
And the thing we don’t often entertain, is that without these other humans – these strangers – that we could not live. The food we eat, the ways we get from one place to another, the manner in which our towns keep running, the buildings get engineered, the trash gets hauled away, and the lights stay on, are all because people we don’t know are making these things happen. I am convinced that strangers play a very important role in our lives. And I don’t just mean pragmatically. My life is immeasurably richer when someone who was once a stranger to me is now someone for whom I know a name, a story, or even just a tidbit about their lives.
BUT left to my own devices – literally me and the rest of the 68% of us in the U.S. who now have smartphones to keep us occupied when we have a waiting moment — I would prefer to listen to podcasts and refresh twitter. I’m not being flippant when I say this. It’s honestly become my natural state. Refreshing twitter has become my natural state.
To further complicate this, I am a shy, introvert and a careful person by nature. When I was little, when my parents taught us about “strangers” and “stranger danger”, their philosophy was to try to instill a healthy people-radar. By this, I mean they wanted us to be capable of engaging with people out in the world but also be able to detect creepers with candy bars. Despite their attempt at balance, I presumed everyone I didn’t know was trying to kidnap me. So, that kind of backfired and my parents eventually had to backtrack and help me be not so scared to ride my bike down the street by convincing me that I could theoretically run into kidnappers with my bike if need be. Yep. Mental Gymnastics at its finest. I have certainly come to a more healthy place, but my default is to keep quietly to myself.
AND YET. I am convinced that if we’d make more strangers into familiar faces our lives would be incredibly richer.
Pressing Pause on the Day
In fact, a few weeks ago I was at the store and passed a gentleman stocking shelves. Even though he seemed to be concentrating on rearranging a shelf of puzzles he said, “Hi, how are ya?” in a manner that doesn’t necessarily beg further conversation. Instead of responding with an in-passing salutation myself, for some reason I pressed pause on my day and invited a conversation, “I’m doing well, thanks! I’m on the hunt for a birthday present. How are you doing today?”
He looked surprised and said, “I’m good too! Thanks for asking.” And then, “You know something, I say hi to people all day long and you are the first person in days that has asked me back.” I was a little surprised by that, to be honest. Then again, I am often one of those people who just keeps going quietly to myself, so maybe it’s not surprising that it’s more the exception than the norm. But it struck me that it genuinely seemed to affect his day that someone stopped long enough to ask him how his day was going. This led to a short conversation about his kids moving away and how much they missed Mr.Hero’s waffle fries more than anything else in the whole world. Chit chat. Nothing earth shattering, but a real day-maker. For both of us I think.
And that took me back to another moment recently. Having just made a cross-country move and still living out of boxes, I was searching last-minute for something presentable to wear to a wedding. My anxiety levels were all ratcheted up and I was clenching the shopping cart handle really tightly. A lady who worked at the department store must have noticed that I looked a bit frazzled and interrupted my stressed-out train of thought with a sweet “Hello! how are you today?” It wasn’t a sales-y hello. Those are different. It was actually a caring, “I see you” hello. From a stranger. It was the littlest thing but for some reason it woke me up. It was a reality check to press pause and realize that “my life is happening right here and now and – wow, I am clenching this shopping cart really tight right, and calm down.” And then I proceeded to stay in said store for way longer than I probably should have because the Katy Perry and assorted pop princesses playlist overhead seemed to be doing good things for my soul.
All this to say, that simple encounter shifted the trajectory of my day.
Peace Begins with a Smile
If you’re reading this thinking, “Is she suggesting that I just start saying “hi” to random strangers?” I guess kind of I am. More than anything, I’m suggesting we do some experiments in our own lives of noticing each other better. I know if I’m not intentional, I can quickly start to treat everyone around me like “extras” on the stage of my life.
And I know, I know, I know, some of you live in places where even making eye contact is discouraged! BUT, from bodegas to super groceries, the post office to the dog park, or the playground where the mom or dad seems extra frazzled, we all have moments in our week where we are face-t0-face with an unknown soul. Don’t try to hard. And I presume you won’t have too. But as you’re out and about this weekend, make way for strangers. We just can’t know what a smile, a hello, or a “how are ya?” could do for them today.
PLUS, you never know, that person might end up helping you get on an earlier flight after you’ve been stranded in Houston overnight. Or something. (Thanks for that, Bob from Dripping Springs. We were grateful.)
“Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power. Smile at one another. It is not always easy.“
-Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World