Living in the Company of Strangers


by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

May we no longer step blindly past the stranger who huddles in the cold outside the door! May I no longer pretend not to see the woman with massively disheveled hair crawling out of her wheelchair to sleep in a door well. Let no one continue to walk past the elderly Latino man riddled with dazed confusion begging for food in front of grocery store, because they are in such a hurry to grab their lunch.

To live in the city is to live in the presence of strangers. For those of us living in cities, passing strangers on busy streets is unremarkable. We rush to our next appointments, preoccupied with our own thoughts, navigating through crowded sidewalks. On “autopilot,” we don't even think about our many brief encounters with unknown others in public spaces.

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Parker J. Palmer, a fellow sociologist and spiritual seeker, speak at the Lobero Theater. Sponsored by the Courage to Lead, a local non-profit for professional renewal founded by Ken Saxon, Palmer's talk was entitled “Healing the Heart of Democracy”, which is also the name of his new book. I will not attempt to summarize his talk here but merely relate some of his ideas about valuing strangers and reaching out to them in ways that we might be unaccustomed.

Of course, every ancient wisdom tradition promotes the virtue of hospitality to strangers, and Palmer's promotion of kindness to those we do not know is not unique. What is particular about Palmer's argument is the role that he places on community engagement with unknown others in a healthy civic life and political democracy.

Palmer argues that we need to learn to value otherness. American society has become one too much dependent upon an "us versus them" thinking. We spend so much of our time in “tribes” and “lifestyle enclaves”, often hanging out with people like us, whoever us might be. The good news is that through continual discipline and practice the human mind can overcome these accustomed limitations and learn to allow “otherness” to enlarge and revitalize our lives, including kinds of otherness that initially seems scarey and frightening.

All of us are strangers to people who are “other” than us, so we live in a world of many two-way streets. For me, the great value of reaching out to the stranger is at least two-fold: the stranger has a perspective on reality that I need to understand if I want to see the whole picture; and in a world of endless diversity, the more I get to know “the stranger” the more at home I feel on the face of the earth. (In almost every case of “fear of the other” that I know about, a face-to-face meeting with people who represent that form of “otherness” reduces or removes that fear).” (Parker Palmer, 2012 personal correspondence)

For a number of years I have worked as a social worker for our neighbors on the streets, often encountering unknown urban nomads in need of lots of kindness. I have learned that once I have learned someone's name, that person becomes my kin. And if I have heard that person's life story, it is then written on my heart. And, if I have become their companion, I have learned more from them I have taught. The odds are that their kindness to me has been greater than mine to them.

Unfortunately, many of those strangers on our city's streets are increasingly marginalized, displaced and silenced by a cruel machine called “modernity” that that feeds off of smily-faced worker / consumers, and spits to the sides all the “others” it does not need—the different, the distant (think gender, race, sexuality, age), all the others without “purpose” in the capitalist system. Many of these people end up on our streets and in our shelters.

How, Parker Palmer seems to be asking, might we come to listen to these unknown persons, come to see them as a friends and neighbors that we have not yet met? Those unknown others might have something important to offer us:—an important piece of information we need to know in order to make a decision, an radically different perspective on an issue that we have never even considered, or even a beautiful song of joy that we might not have ever even imagined.

There are so many good reasons why we should go up to absolute strangers in public spaces, speak to them, and be hospitable. When we exchange names and smiles, we confront the myths, false beliefs and uncritically assimilated assumptions about strangers that we have gathered over a life time.

According to sociologist Richard Sennett, a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet. With the norms of civility in modern public life we typically glance at one another quickly and then look away, in a ritual that Erving Goffman calls “civil inattentions (see my essay “Encountering Strangers in Public Places”).
Next time that you are out for a walk downtown and are open for a transformative learning experience, go up to a stranger in a public space, speak to them kindly, introduce yourself, reach out to them, engage them in a meaningful dialogue, open up your heart, and practice real democracy. As Parker Palmer says, “become a gardener of community,” allowing otherness to expand your universe.

Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. Is a writer and activist who focuses on issues of social justices. He teaches at Antioch University Santa Barbara and is on the Board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE)