As children, most of us were cautioned against talking to strangers. As adults, we need to unlearn that lesson. There is a lot to be gained from talking to people we don’t know. A few years ago, I had a life altering, 2.5 hour conversation with a stranger. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I want to share it here as well.
A walk in a park
I was on a research trip and had stopped in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Across the street from the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. The park was once the site of some of the worst acts of civil rights violence and is now a site of memory. Its history is retold through sculptures and other art installations throughout.
It was July and so I decided to stroll through the park first thing in the morning before it got too hot. I was studying a sculpture depicting vicious, snarling dogs when I heard a voice behind me say, “nothing has changed you know.” I turned around to see who’d spoken and there was Willy.
A talk with a stranger
Willy was an African American man, probably in his sixties. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he had grown up in the area and was homeless. I asked him to elaborate on what he’d said about nothing having changed and he was happy to do so. We sat down on a bench and Willy told me stories about living in the segregated South and in the South as it is today. His stories revealed a life of pain and possibility, of humiliation and happy times, of terror and tenacity. Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed.
When Willy finished speaking, we sat silently for a time. Finally, I asked Willy, “if you could have it any way you wanted, what would your life be like? What kind of life do you dream about?” His response was so quick and vehement that it scared me at first. He jumped to his feet and shook his fist in the air while shouting, “I would dominate. I would control everything. Men, women, children! I would be the one telling people what to do and when to do it and I would make them obey me! I would own everything and I would control all the money! I would be in control!”
When he finished, Willy glanced nervously in my direction. He returned to the bench and sat down. Shaking his head he said, “I’m sorry. I just said all of that because of everything I’ve been through.” He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly. “But that’s how I feel, you know?”
Willy stared off into space for a few minutes before speaking again. This time, his voice was soft. “You know all that stuff I said? That’s not really what I want.” He glanced sideways at me. “Do you want to know what I really want?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “What I really want is to have people to love and to have people who love me.” Then, Willy turned his whole body so he was facing me. He looked straight into my eyes, and asked, “but isn’t that what we all want?”
Isn’t that what we all want?
In Willy’s rhetorical question was a powerful assertion of sameness about people–all people. He knew that love is buried among the differences that so many use as licenses to hate and exclude. He also knew that everyone, no matter how much or how little he or she has, can both give and receive love. It costs nothing to do either. We are all equally rich in this regard. Why, then, is it so easy to be stingy with our love? What’s the payoff? I don’t know.
What I learned from Willy
Here’s the thing. What Willy knew and believed with all his heart, despite all he’d been through, was that everyone wants to have someone to love and to have someone who loves them back. We stand in the way of that happening in so many ways. For example, many of us are quick to judge ourselves on the basis of our intentions and others on the basis of their actions–I am SO guilty of this. And have you noticed how often conditions are attached to others’ “lovability” and “value” in homes, in communities, and in society more broadly? How much of the crap that we create and navigate in our day-to-day lives would just fall away if we kept Willy’s very simple observation in mind? I wonder.
There’s merit in talking to strangers
I did not enter that park expecting to have a conversation with a stranger, let alone a life-altering one. But maybe I should have entered that park looking for an opportunity to have one. If Willy hadn’t spoken to me, a stranger, that day, I’d have missed out on an amazing encounter. I probably would have just walked by him with little more than a nod and a “good morning.”
It’s easy to walk by people like Willy. He didn’t look the way we generally expect wise people to look. Most of the time, therefore, he’s invisible. That’s tragic. There’s no telling what we miss out on when we don’t “see” and talk to people like Willy–strangers. Imagine what we might learn about ourselves and others simply by looking for opportunities to talk to people we don’t know.
What do you think? Have you had encounters with strangers that have been meaningful in some way? How did they happen? Why were they valuable? And do you agree that there is merit in going out of our way to make them happen again? Share your thoughts below and please subscribe or follow my blog.
As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.