This trip has surprised me.
I guess a little bit of me was assuming that I would feel isolated. I mean, traveling alone, being on the move, and stopping in cities where I know very few people sounds like a recipe for loneliness right?
While there have been long stretches of alone time, this adventure around America has so clearly been about connection.
There’s been many people who’ve struck up conversations with me. Like the fruit stand guy at Pike’s Place in Seattle. A weathered face and slate grey eyes lighting up as he asked if I want to try a pear. He shared about his motorcycle trip he took from Florida up to Washington back in his day as he nonchalantly slips me slices from cameo apples and persimmons.
I’ve surprised myself with my growing boldness at interacting with strangers as well. Like the time I went to a restaurant that had been recommended to me, and after ordering a drink at the bar, I couldn’t find a place to sit. There was an empty seat next to three friendly looking guys, so before I could talk myself out of it, I asked if I could join. They ended up being three cousins from Ethiopia. I had a lovely evening, hearing about their family dynamics and laughing at the stories of shenanigans.
And don’t get me started on the overwhelming hospitality I’ve received in the places I’ve stayed. Time and again, I’ve shown up to different homes of people hosting me, unsure of what I’d find. Most of the people I’ve stayed with were complete strangers, or connections through a few degrees of separation. Without fail, these people have opened up their homes, invited me to their dinner table for a feast, and delighted in showing me their town.
These strangers-turned-friends have been a diverse bunch. Differing backgrounds and world views, various ethnicities and perspectives, and people who’ve had vastly different experiences than this sheltered girl from Iowa have come alongside me and made me feel at home.
I am not sure what I was expecting, but I think maybe this is what I was hoping for. It is so good for me to put myself in places where I am out of my element and surrounded by people who are different than me. It is an opportunity to confront my hidden assumptions and see the similar humanity in everyone.
It has been uncomfortable and stretching at times, but so beautiful. What is so fascinating is to see the contrast between my experience and what’s happening in American politics right now. Juxtaposed against this connection and unity I’m experiencing is this daily news about hate-charged rhetoric, increasing evidence of dividing lines, and a candidate who spews out horrifying statements like it’s his job. So much of this election season has left me waffling between bewilderment, embarrassment, and dismay.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. It makes sense that people are suspicious of what is different than them. That fear can be a powerful driving force, manifesting as anger and extremism. When this is insulated in an environment where only people you encounter look the same, think the same, vote the same way, this fear can go undetected. The other becomes a caricature of assumptions and stereotypes to fear, make fun of, and defend against.
I get it. Fear of that which is different can be so subtle and so deeply ingrained into our humanity. It’s a natural defense mechanism and I am not immune to it. The problem is when you think the only people who are people are the people who look and act like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. (If you just got that last sentence, you are a child of the nineties…If it made you laugh, then we are kindred spirits.)
“Grace dies when it becomes ‘us versus them.’” — Philip Yancy
While there is a gravitational pull towards that mentality, I’m finding that it doesn’t have to have the last say. In the moments where I choose curiosity over fear, I discover so much about myself and others. In encounters where I’ve released assumptions, I find myself surprised by compassion. Exercising the muscle of empathy and choosing to believe that everyone is doing the best they can has only brought more life and freedom into my world.
This reminded me of a video I saw a few months back. In response to the controversy of the millions of refugees that were entering Europe, Amnesty International conducted a simple experiment, based on psychologist Arthur Aron’s findings that 4 minutes of looking into someone’s eyes is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers. What would happen if these strangers, Syrian refugees and Europeans, sat across from each other in the historically divided city of Berlin and really tried to see the other person?
Nervous laughter and eyes darting away in discomfort dissipate in the first minute. Walls come down and simple human connection is formed. The conversation is stilted with language barriers, but that doesn’t diminish the profound bond that forms. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it right now. (Fair warning, I cry every time I watch it.)
This beautiful video belies our human need to be seen. We are built for connection. When we isolate ourselves into places of familiarity, we lose our ability to see. Being in the presence of “the other” humanizes them. Assumptions and judgment fall away as the familiar humanity in their face become evident.
I don’t claim to have any or all of the answers. This is not a how-to blog, where I claim a 5 step process to eradicating all of the dividing lines that riddle our nation. I’m not proposing that we all hold hands and gaze at each other with 5 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact on the other side of the voting booth next week.
But I am making a case for why we should seek to put ourselves around people that are different than us. I am asking us to practice choosing curiosity over fear. I’m asking for us to endeavor to really see the people around us.
**All photos in this post are from unsplash.com