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April 16, 2017

Father Jim McDermott, SJ

Finding freedom in the welcome of a stranger

When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You
by Kio Stark
Simon and Schuster, $16.99, 128 pp.

Earlier this year, someone recommended an enewsletter with the obscure title “Municipal Archive.” The newsletter itself did not disappoint: brief narrations of author Kio Stark’s interactions with strangers. Sometimes they offered profound moments of connection, other times just funny little anecdotes. But always they were compelling.

A writer, consultant and teacher in New York University’s graduate program of interactive telecommunications, Stark is fascinated by human interaction, and in particular by the potential for meaningful encounters between strangers. Earlier this fall she released a short book on this topic, “When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You,” in which she proposes to show “how lyrical and profound our most momentary connections can be.”

“I want you to see the invisible mechanics and meanings of street interactions,” she writes in the introduction. “I want to give you a new way to be in love with the world.”

Now let me come clean. I’m the kind of person who gets on a plane strategizing how best to keep from being roped into conversation (pro-tip: headphones, bigger the better). As a priest, I’m not proud of how introverted I can be, but it happens. So a book dedicated to encouraging me to talk to strangers is not an easy sell.

Even so, Stark gave me a lot to think about. Take, for instance, her general proposal that “talking to strangers is good for you.” “When something unexpected happens,” she writes, such as engaging a stranger in just a momentary interaction, “it calls you to full attention, turns your awareness outward to the world. You are awake. ... You’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You’re present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had that experience of being liberated by a random interaction. In fact, it’s often how Jesus is able to finally reach me at Mass.

Sitting in the congregation, it can be so hard not to get lost in my head, wondering about the thing I have to do tomorrow or was supposed to do yesterday, and did I buy my niece’s birthday gift and what did that person mean by that comment and Lord how long is this homily going to go? Even when I try to push all that aside, it has a way of creeping back.

But almost always the sign of peace, that brief act of looking other people in the eye, shaking hands and saying a word of blessing, shakes me free. Suddenly, as Stark says, I am present in the moment. I am open and alive.

For Stark, interacting with a stranger is not about intruding or making a nuisance of yourself. It’s about the little things, like offering a hello or complimenting someone’s dog. The great paradox of our lives, she notes, is that on the one hand, we rightly shield ourselves from others when we’re in public. But at the same time, we all want to be acknowledged. When someone says hello to us, she writes, we feel good because our “existence as a person has been noticed and spoken to. You have been seen.”

Stark’s book is filled with plain-spoken observations of social scientists into the ways we interact, little experiments we can try (which she calls “expeditions”), and more wonderful short stories of her own experience, like the woman walking her dog at dusk who confides she never really used to see the sun set or the moon rise, or the taxi driver who talks about meeting his wife when he missed her stop in his cab because they couldn’t stop talking.

The moments are ephemeral, but lovely, like looking up to see a shooting star. They well capture the unexpected, meaningful connections that can happen when our eyes are open to the world around us.

They also have much to offer to our current political context. “Fear is easier than risk,” Stark notes. Yet social science also demonstrates that “the more visually familiar something becomes, the more we are likely to feel comfortable with it,” even to like it. Our exposure to others different than ourselves creates connections, literally changes the possibilities we allow for our world.

Even if our instincts are to travel through life with our headphones on, says Stark, “We can learn to make these choices with attention and grace,” to dip just a toe out into our world. And the current state of our union suggests we very much should.

“If we don’t,” she writes with concern, “we will find ourselves in a one-dimensional world, deprived of honest human connections and interruptions that awaken us.”

McDermott is a Jesuit priest from Mount Prospect working as a screen and magazine writer in Los Angeles.