I had the most touching interaction with a stranger the other day. I was walking out of the post office carrying a box and my unnecessarily large purse. I got into my car and was arranging everything on the passenger seat when I heard a voice behind me.
An older man had walked up to my open car door and as soon as I turned around, he said, “I wish to be of assistance. Do not panic.” With that, he gently closed my car door and was on his way.
I was struck by the quiet kindness in the man’s eyes and the kindness of his gesture. As I drove home, I replayed the moment over and over again in my mind, and I began to tear up.
Most of the time, if a strange man followed me to my car and walked up to the open door, it would have made me nervous at the very least. This interaction was different, though. I immediately recognized his demeanor as kind, and his words were honest and comforting.
He wasn’t looking for the thanks that I uttered to my closed car door as he walked away. He just saw that I had my hands full and genuinely wanted to help me out.
Of course, I would have had no trouble closing the car door myself. But had that man walked past my car without taking a moment to interact with me, I would have missed out on a moment of feeling connected to another human being, and feeling that you don’t have to know someone to care about them and making their day a little easier.
Then another thought occurred to me. How is it that we live in a world where shootings and bombings are commonplace, but where a simple act of kindness by a stranger was enough to leave my teary-eyed?
In a world that is so vast, that is populated by so many people, how is it that we still feel such a large void when it comes to feeling a connection to the people around us?
I wish I could say that I had the answers to those questions. Or, better yet, I wish I had solutions. But I don’t.
I do know that we crave a feeling of closeness, connectedness, and honesty with other people. Look at the success of Humans of New York or Post Secret. While it can be much harder to seek a connection with strangers in real life than it is online, that makes those real life connections even more enriching.
The discourse that surrounds having meaningful interactions with strangers tends to focus on helping other people or performing random acts of kindness. While that can be a great place to start, I believe the sentiment could – and should – go much deeper.
In thinking about what we can do to help people, it is easy to think about it in terms of what we are willing to do for other people that will make us feel the best about ourselves. I might feel really good about myself for giving $20 to the homeless man as I walked by him on the street, but it may not have been the most effective way I could have helped him. Maybe a few honestly kind words would have made his day more than the $20. It is easier, though, to put money in his cup and keep walking.
I think that a more effective way to think about “helping people” would be to think about what you could do to show someone that you see them and that you care about them. And I mean really see them. Understand them. Respect them. Empathize with them.
The man who closed my car door the other day knew that I might feel nervous that he approached me. He understood that, respected that, and was able to put my mind at ease before I even had a chance to react negatively. And even though he knew I might react negatively, he put himself out there anyways.
These are the types of actions that can start to make the world a better place to live in. If we could all look at our neighbors or the people we pass as we walk down the street and put just a little bit of effort into seeing them as individuals, absent of any judgment, the world be changed for the better. If we then took that seeing and understanding and – even occasionally – showed those acquaintances and strangers compassion and caring, the world would be a much better place.
I’m not saying that it is going to be easy. I’m not saying that I am good at it. But it is something that I am going to work on. Instead of giving sympathy to strangers, I will work on giving empathy, and making their day a little better through honest interaction.
It is something that can be applied on a much larger scale as well. Think about groups of people who are different from you. Maybe they are different in their age, race, gender, religion, or any other way. Make an effort to see things from their point of view. It may not be comfortable. It will likely challenge a lot of the assumptions that you had about that group. It may be difficult, but it needs to be done.
In a world where we are connected on so many levels, we are divided just as often. We identify ourselves as being part of certain groups, ranging from gender and race to political affiliation and which sports teams we like. If we surround ourselves with only others who are like us, it then becomes easy to see people who don’t fall into the same groups as “others”, but we must resist that urge.
It will not be easy. It will not happen overnight. If you are doing it right, you will be uncomfortable at times and pushed outside of your comfort zone. But start small. Start somewhere.
Start, perhaps, by letting a stranger know that you see them, and show them that in some way – no matter how small – that you care about them.