What We Can Learn From Unplugging And Opening Up To Strangers

I sat across from the same stranger for more than five hours in Starbucks; we smiled occasionally, conversed briefly and laughed at the strange encounters we both observe. But yet, at the end of my five hours I stood up, threw him a smile and left. That’s it — he was out of my life forever.

Maybe we will run into each other again at Starbucks tomorrow, next week or even next year, briefly recognize one another and then go our separate ways. But even so, our encounters will always be surface level interactions; exchanges that can only occur between strangers.

At the end of our shared five hours of intimate proximity, we return to our two separate worlds, forgetting that the other even existed. But why do we feel we need to keep these worlds separate?  Why do we feel the urge not to enter other worlds, even if just for a few minutes?

I imagine a time when computers, cell phones and iPads didn’t exist and strangers actually spoke to and learned from one another. Compassion, empathy and especially curiosity developed and thrived in a world in which we did not simply glance down at our cell phones to avoid the people around us.

When you take the time to dare to get to know the people around you — not just assumptions you make about them regarding the books they’re reading or the websites they're visiting — you also learn to develop skills that are important for life.

From strangers, we can learn compassion, tolerance, love, hope and many other real human traits. We learn compassion from listening to people speak about their hardships and from observing the ways they treat others. We learn tolerance from observing the ways they act that are so innately different from our views. We learn love from the way they speak of their families, their friends and their passions. But most importantly, we learn hope from the ways they yearn for more and the distances they have traveled to get to where they are today. We learn to have hope in humanity.

So, rather than shying away from these real moments with the stranger next to you, put down your phone, turn off your laptop, unplug and listen. I’ve learned that when you stop to observe and to immerse yourself in the world and the people around you, it and they will surprise you.

We tend to take the answers available for granted. Who can blame us when all you need to do is to ask Siri or type your question into Google? But, when we fail to experience other journeys to find those answers, we tend to forget the meaning that they hold.

We must, instead of valuing the answer to our questions, take time to understand the importance of how someone came to those answers. We can do this by simply asking people. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my travels and my time in school, it’s that there is nothing like someone’s story to lead you to begin to understand the world around you. It is not the facts on the computer screen, but the stories of the strangers sitting next to us that give us life.

There are many things that we can learn from a simple conversation with the individuals who surround us — after all, they are living their lives in the same world as you are.

Once we can acknowledge their existence in our world, we can hopefully learn to live without our phones permanently attached to our hands and see the people around us not as a group of unidentifiable strangers, but as individuals with unique stories.

Photo via 500 Days Of Summer