20. Talking to Strangers

Good morning and welcome to your twentieth meditation. How often do you talk to strangers? Beyond simple practical transactional conversations. More likely than not your answer is seldom. We live in a moment that tends to view the individual as the most important social unit, followed closely by the family. Both concepts – individual and family – probably evoke a fairly clear and distinct set of images and ideas for you. The community, however, is likely a hazier concept. Where we may have a perfectly good idea of what our responsibilities towards ourselves and our families are, we may be a little nonplussed about how to define our relationship with our communities. Even our duties toward our nation, a much broader concept that usually encompasses a far greater number of people you’ve never met and vast swathes of land that you’ve never visited, often seem better defined than the responsibilities we have toward the people who occupy the same neighbourhood as us and whom we pass in the streets every day. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with our individual or family concerns that we simply don’t have the leftover bandwidth to care about or engage with people we don’t know. So we block them out. Assume an indifferent attitude toward them. View them more as obstacles through which we have to navigate than as the people that they are with their own complex histories and emotional worlds, no less rich than our own. Not only can engaging with these people offer all kinds of new perspectives, it also can offer a real feeling of belonging, both for you and for them. When you open up to the world around you, it opens up to you, invites you in, and makes you feel at home within it. And moreover, practising being open to these moments of connection can also help you learn to be a more open person in general, with a greater ability to go with the flow, adapt to certain situations, and to improvise.

Of course, you can’t engage with every person you see on the street. None of us has time for that, and most people will not be particularly amenable to your indiscriminate engagement. But perhaps you are waiting in line and you, in an unobtrusive way, commiserate about the wait time with your fellow queuers. Perhaps you cheer someone on whom you see doing something remarkable. Or perhaps you simply offer a friendly smile to the person passing you on the sidewalk. These are just a few of the infinite ways you can connect with the people around you. And who knows, if you offer the world friendliness, you just might make some new friends. Keep it up. You’re doing great. Have a wonderful day.

Most of us grow up being taught to avoid talking to strangers. We learn that since we don’t know them, we cannot trust them, and as a result they represent a potential threat. Of course it’s important that we protect our ourselves from danger. And, nice as it is to believe that people on the whole are good and should be trusted, the reality is that there are many people out there who don’t have your best interests at heart, and some who wouldn’t think twice about compromising your safety. But what is the price of insisting that we distrust that with which we are unfamiliar? How does this affect the way we view the world, and the kind of people we become as a result?

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