Somewhat unintentionally I’ve saved the most difficult, but arguably one of the best, joyful things for my last Week of Joy post. It’s best because in many ways, connecting with strangers encompasses most if not all of my other joys. It’s the most difficult because it demands a deep vulnerability that is absent from the other items.
I am crazy passionate about hearing about the passions of others. I do not need to share those passions to feel this way. Example: my high school boyfriend got excited about physics on a regular basis, and barring abstract science-fiction like concepts such as black holes, other dimensions, and dark matter, this most mathematical of sciences makes me snooze. But watching him light up talking about the subject was glorious and inspiring, no matter how quickly I lost the contextual thread of the conversation.
Everyone has something they love, something they can talk about with any number of people for any amount of time with boundless enthusiasm. Or, if they don’t, they should. Because it is these kinds of quirky passions that make people interesting, and make connecting with strangers about those passions one of my absolute favorite things to do in life.
But to address the deep vulnerability component. In order to authentically connect with people you don’t know (ie, actually talk about something meaningful rather than the kind of small talk that is so common in any sort of polite society) you have to share a piece of yourself as well. Exchange passions, so to speak. One must balance listening with sharing, debating with relating. Connecting with strangers is invigorating and terrifying at the same time, because by opening ourselves up to a new authentic relationship and the accompanying joys and synergies, we risk being rejected or taken advantage of. But how often do the latter two happen anyway?
For whatever reason I am hard pressed to come up with a particular example of an especially insightful moment connecting with a single stranger as of late. However, in continuing to expand my interest in the Transition Town movement I have had a plethora of interactions with strangers who often become friends, or at least acquaintances.
Conversations around the Transition Town movement demand even more of an immediate connection and vulnerability than other chance interactions, largely because the movement is so personal and community-based. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of Transition Towns, the short version is that it’s a movement that started in England to brainstorm and practice solutions to build community and local resilience as a response to climate change and peak oil. The long version involves a lot of creativity, diversity, balance between academic knowledge of likely the most challenging environmental issues our world has ever faced and practical, on the ground solutions. To truly discuss these issues and how we come to care about them, it is absolutely necessary that one bare one’s soul a bit. Sharing stories of the past and hopes for the future is integral to creating that future holistically, communally, and completely.
I’m now connected with the Transition Town movement through a multitude of ways- the group in the neighborhood I community organize for, the group in the neighborhood I live in, the Sustainability Conference, and occasional attendance at a weekly, informal Twin Cities Transition Town group. Each and every time I attend a gathering I see at least one person I’ve met before and have a meaningful conversation with at least one person I’ve never spoken with.
As with birds, connecting with strangers is a rather serendipitous joy. Planning such a thing ruins the authenticity of the conversation- one cannot go out and hunt for strangers to connect with, luring them in with the sheer magneticism of one’s personality.
The vulnerability component, however, can be intentionally lived more deeply for sure. I absolutely love it when strangers comment on something I say, something I’m wearing, or something I’m reading, but somehow forget that it is likely that others enjoy when I do the same. I must remember, remember that everyone is looking for human connection, that we all need something like six interactions with different people per day to stay sane (a smile will do, a conversation or hug is better).
Above all, I must remember the importance of asking questions, for everyone has a multitude of stories to tell.
“I think people are trying to find a way to sit around and tell stories. I think that’s all any of us wants, is a place to tell stories to each other.”
~man at a party with The Rejectionist