Talking to Strangers by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2022 October 25

Talking to Strangers

Ana Levy-Lyons

September 18, 2022

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

Part One

Two scenes. Scene one, set in the North Island of New Zealand: a visitor from out of town comes to a Maori neighborhood and greets a shopkeeper. The two of them make eye contact and then lean their faces close, until their foreheads and noses are touching. They take a moment to breathe each other’s air before stepping back. And then they chat. This is the traditional indigenous practice of hongi – a greeting that means roughly “the sharing of breath.”

The Maori creation myth, like the Biblical creation myth, features the divine breathing life into an earth creature. The earthling becomes animated and conscious when it receives that breath of life. So in the practice of hongi, it’s understood that the two people are literally sharing the breath of life, allowing it to pass between them. They are breathing life into each other. For a visitor, hongi is also a kind of initiation – they are being brought into the circle of the community, which includes all the creatures of the island. They are taking part in the oneness of everything.

Scene two, set on the R train in New York City: a visitor from out of town gets onto the subway. He looks around and, seeing that every single person is on their phone, he gets out his phone too. He spends his ride in silence, transported through that little rectangular portal to a world that is not New York City but the world of Pokemon GO or Instagram or maybe a news story about Trump and the Justice Department and their game of chicken. No one on the train acknowledges our visitor and no one certainly has any interest in breathing his air. In fact, we have spent the last few years going to great lengths to avoid breathing each other’s air.

In the age of Covid, hongi sounds terrifying. And in fact, during the height of the pandemic, Maori tribes were trying to ban it or at least discourage it. But I want to suggest that in our culture hongi might have sounded terrifying even before Covid. We’ve been drifting away from each other for decades at least and now it’s to the point that we speak of an epidemic of loneliness. Isn’t it interesting that just as our culture was pushing us away from each other, increasingly mediating our interactions through screens, a disease came along that made it, for a time, positively reckless to be in the presence of another human being? What does that mean? I don’t have an answer, but it feels significant. Like maybe the tide of loneliness that we had set in motion had to reach its extreme form, its high water mark, before it could hopefully, maybe, recede, and we could find each other again.

In this country, we have long embraced an ideal of extreme individualism, more euphemistically called “healthy boundaries,” less euphemistically called “isolation” and “alienation.” Our interconnectedness with other humans, never mind other creatures of the earth, was a pleasant idea, but not something urgent and real or religious. It was not something that guided our lives in any real way.

Our lives have been much more guided by the need to safeguard our own interests and those of our family. Others would be let into that circle cautiously on a case-by-case basis. You can’t really blame us for this. We have a pretty paltry safety net, so in some sense it really is everyone for themself. And in this country we have the historical anomaly of single family homes and single driver cars. More than a quarter of us live alone. And if you want to know how much we trust each other, almost half of us live in homes with a gun.

And then of course, there’s the centrifugal force of technology. As much as it connects us, it also pushes us away from each other. Any spare moment when we might have chatted with strangers – in line at the grocery store, in an elevator, in a waiting room – we’re on our phones instead. Food delivery apps and online shopping make it less likely that we’re going to out in public to begin with. And when we do have to share air with someone, like in an Uber, the app now gives us the option of warning the driver in advance to not talk to us.

So we were heading this way before the pandemic, the pandemic made it worse, and now we find that sometimes, even if we want to, we don’t quite know how to do this thing called relating to each other. Our social skills are rusty and we’ve become a little bit timid. Not all of us, of course. I’m sure some of us in this room are thinking, “Well I’m not timid. This doesn’t apply to me.” But as a culture as a whole, we’re reticent about talking to each other.

How do we make new friends, interact with someone who’s different from us, or form relationships with our neighbors? How can we even begin to bridge our political divides? How can we build community – real community where people are there for each other, take care of each other’s kids, and help each other live our lives better? How can we feel our interdependence, not just fling the word around as a theoretical? I want to suggest that one small way to start is by talking to strangers.

Hymn: What Wondrous Love

Part Two

I read about some research on loneliness and why lonely people were not making more connections. If everyone’s lonely, can’t all those lonely people just get together and not be lonely any more? Apparently it’s not that simple. After so much Zoom and texting, face-to-face can feel like going out on a high wire. The connection is raw and immediate, less controllable. You can’t shape your image the way you can online. You’re right there and the other person is right there and you have to deal with each other. It’s what’s great and it’s what can be hard.

The research also showed that one of the reasons it’s not so easy to just meet people is that we believe that to talk to a stranger is going to be much more awkward and unpleasant than it actually is. We overestimate the difficulty of socializing and we underestimate how happy it will make us. Apparently even deep, meaningful conversations with strangers are less difficult and more fulfilling than we expect! When research subjects were randomly assigned to either make conversation with strangers on the subway or just get on their phones as usual, those who made conversation, even introverts, reported feeling happier at the end of the ride than they had before. It gave a little lift to their day. Those who just stayed on their phones reported no difference in mood by the end of the ride.

That’s a small example, but it’s not a small matter. We humans are social creatures. We need each other. NY Times columnist David Sax puts it in terms of our larger political context: “Engagement with strangers is at the core of our social contract.”

So with all this in mind, I decided last week to use myself as a guinea pig and try the talking to strangers experiment. My self-assigned task was to talk to one stranger every day for a week. And it couldn’t just be a thank you to a checkout person at the grocery store, I had to try to actually initiate a conversation. This was a pretty uncomfortable prospect for me – I’m not the most gregarious person and I identify as bad at small talk. But I did it.

I talked with a woman in the lobby of my building whose phone ring was “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston. I talked with a guy who was unlocking a Citibike about how exactly he was going to ride a bike while holding a full cup of coffee. He said it was one of his few talents. I talked with an elderly woman sitting next to me crocheting at a film screening who I learned was making yarmulkes for the guests at her grandson’s upcoming bar mitvah. She had already made 22. I talked to a guy on the subway who was the only person not on a cellphone. I asked him about this and he said he prefers to just people-watch. “I grew up in the 60’s,” he said, “I know how to live without a phone.”

And then, on Friday, at the very end of the week I had set for myself, a stranger talked to me. I was standing in line at Trader Joe’s with my son Micah. I had not been to Trader Joe’s in many years, but for some reason that day I had the impulse to go. The guy standing behind us in line asked if Micah was a dancer. He is a dancer and we were both shocked that this guy had somehow been able to tell. We started chatting and it came out that the guy is an opera singer and knows the worlds of dance and music. He’s 74 years old, still performing, and has no interest in retiring. He said, “Why would I retire? I love my job.” We talked the whole time we were in line, and Micah and I were both touched by the sweetness of the exchange. It felt like a little surprise blessing.

I had spent a week initiating these conversations and then one came free to me and my son in this lovely way. In reflecting on it later, it seemed to me that this was not a coincidence. When we reach out to the world with the intention of connecting there’s a kind of instant karma and it boomerangs back to us. We create a relational cycle and the world gets smaller in a good way. We start to feel the threads of the web that bind us to everyone else.

Could we all do this? Could we let more people into our bubble more often? Could we take the risk of inviting others into our world and becoming curious about theirs? I’m not suggesting that we all practice hongi. But I am suggesting that we aim to live something of the principle of hongi, which is also the principle of Unitarianism. We are all one. We can all be guinea pigs in the spiritual research on our oneness. Try a week of talking to strangers and see what happens. Try a month.  Who knows? If the studies are right, you may like it more than you expect.

Because the deeper truth is that we all breathe each other’s air. Inevitably and always. In the larger sense we all practice hongi all the time. We need each other and we breathe life into each other. In physics, in ecology, and in spiritual life, our interconnectedness is no joke. It’s not theoretical. It’s real. I believe we are called to live in the light of that truth.

Prayer            [music begins]

Let’s pray together. Spirit of life we open ourselves to the mystery of the oneness of the universe. All voices one vibration; all souls one presence. Help us feel our connection to all the creatures of the earth. Help us to trust one another as different faces of ourselves. Open our hearts to the joys and the suffering of others. May we see an end to the epidemic of loneliness in our time. May we take the risk of vulnerability, the risk of being called naïve, the risk of rejection. We will stake it all on the possibility of connection. We will build community together, and share with our neighbors, until the strangers among us are strangers no more.

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