Early last year I announced that, partly as a counter to Covid/lockdown isolation, I was taking on a challenge to engage warmly with 500 strangers in the year (blog post here). I started out with a very low bar: an exchange of smiles could count. So I was confident that I’d easily make the goal. Alas, it turns out I’m much more stranger-shy than I thought, and I managed only 270 encounters (blog post for week 44 here). I could plead that, especially towards the end of the year, I didn’t keep track of every encounter, but I have to face the fact that I didn’t get anywhere near 500. I could, of course, grant myself an extension, but I’m declaring that time’s up, and I’m acknowledging failure.
Though, it’s not really a failure, of course. I’ve had hundreds of interesting encounters, paid attention to moments that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, made a handful of new connections, learned about my neighbourhood, and understood a little better the negative social impact of smart phones. I’ve remembered encounters with strangers in my youth: conversations on trains and long-distance buses, with hitchhikers I’ve picked up and drivers who have picked me up when hitching, with chatty older people in parks and in the street (a man once buttonholed me to tell a version of the history of Sydney’s settlement; a woman explained to 14-year-old me the miracle of chiropractics), with people at parties and seminars and workshops. I’ve realised with a bit of a shock that with age I’ve become less open to encounters of that sort – more wary, more judgemental, less sure of my welcome, maybe just less interested. A couple of years ago, someone in my local park said to me, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who reads a book while he walks his dog and doesn’t talk to anyone.’ The many occasions in the last 11 months when I’ve made a clear decision to connect have demonstrated – to me at least – that this decline is reversible.
Thanks to Jim Kable’s recommendation, I have read Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers (my blog post here), which makes me realise that this challenge could just be the start of something much bigger and more challenging. I probably won’t blog about it, but I expect, and intend, that something has shifted permanently in my attitude, and probably behaviour, towards strangers