Thanksgiving is upon us and once again, I’m reminded of how thankful I am for the opportunity to write and be read. So thank you, reader, for giving up a few minutes of your week to read this column. Without you, my writing would not be complete.
I’m thankful for all my readers, and for the people who come to my talks and presentations. They are mostly strangers, at least at first, as are all people in the world who are not yet my friends. And while I’m thankful for all the friends I’ve had over the years, it’s the conversations with strangers that have had the greatest impact on me and my view of the world.
My mother, who passed away a couple of months ago, introduced me to strangers. It’s not as creepy as it sounds: she just had a habit of talking to people she didn’t know. In line at the grocery store, at the laundromat waiting for the dryer, or on the street, waiting for the light to change at a crossing — she always had something to say to someone she had never met. Some strangers welcomed her conversations, while others dismissed her, assuming her too forward, and maybe daft. Anything but, my mother was an avid reader of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Joyce, Salinger and Steinbeck, among others. She just wasn’t formally educated or schooled in socially acceptable public behavior, and hadn’t adopted the adage, “never talk to strangers.” So to anyone who didn’t understand this about her, my mother appeared somewhat odd.
If a salesperson or religious doorknocker came to the house, Mom invited them in for tea. She couldn’t afford to buy anything from them and wasn’t religious, but she wanted to talk to them and hear their thoughts. A student of humanity, she was always testing her theories on life through conversations with people outside her day-to-day existence. To really understand people, and how life manifests itself in humans, she knew she had to talk to strangers and listen to what they had to say.
My mother was also a compulsive storyteller who found inspiration everywhere. Stories are a wonderful gift to give someone — a reader or a listener — especially when the story is given life by the receiver, who ponders it, applies it to their own thinking, and chooses to dismiss or accept whatever lessons or beliefs are professed in the tale. Readers and listeners complete the story, sometimes with a firmer resolution in their beliefs, and other times with an altered perception and attitude. Whatever they decided, people who listened to my mother shared with her the gift of their time, and she was so much more the richer for it. I’d like to believe they were, too.
So, like my mother, I talk to strangers. And like her, I get similar, mixed reactions. If they return the gift by engaging in the conversation, I learn about them and in my head, I complete their stories by shifting what I think — or clinging more tightly to my beliefs. But I usually change something — the tiniest thing — about what I thought I knew.
Even my smartest friends can’t inspire me like strangers do, because I’ve handpicked the people with whom I surround myself, choosing those whose values and beliefs align with mine. We share political views, religious views, and have similar social and financial statuses. They seldom test my beliefs, because we are all in sync, and friends who are in sync are the most pleasant to be around. That other adage about one’s self being the “average of the five people with whom you surround yourself” is probably true, and so you can see how limiting it might be to restrict yourself to just five people, five minds, five views. But it is comfortable.
Strangers make me uncomfortable and that’s why I love talking to them. They have so many thoughts inside their heads — just like me, just like you. Every stranger is an opportunity to test my mind and explore the possibility of thinking differently. To live differently, and to be different. To be better — not more comfortable, but better. Talking to strangers might be hard at first, especially if you didn’t grow up with a mother like mine. The easiest way to begin is this: “How are you today?” I ask that question often and learn all kinds of things. Some conversations leave me sad, like the one I had with the woman I spoke with the other day in the elevator at the mall who was working a double shift at her second job. Or my chat with the grocery clerk who can’t afford to get his eyeglasses fixed because Medicaid doesn’t cover it. Other times, my conversations are joyful. People are going through all kinds of things, but you don’t know unless you ask.
Happy Thanksgiving, to all the past strangers in my life and the new ones I have yet to meet. You are the gifts that make me think, and sometimes make me uncomfortable, and I’m grateful for you. I hope I make you uncomfortable too, and that we can use our unease to find ways to be better for each other, and for all the other strangers in our lives.
Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor, and freelance writer. She has lived on Colorado Springs’ northwest side for more than 20 years. Contact Susan at email@example.com.