David Bowers. The Messenger. Gandalf’s Galley. Flickr.
“Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”
How do we feel about talking to strangers? Suspicious? Afraid? Eager? Interested? Wary? Curious? Anxious? Reluctant?
Our answer will depend on who we are, our beliefs, sometimes our prejudices, and our past experiences of ‘the stranger.’
- “Never Talk To Strangers:” The Unknown.
Stranger at the Gate – Jacob Kainen. 1958. Wikioo.
When we talk of strangers, we often issue warnings, especially to children. Who knows who they are and what they may do?
Either in everyday life, or on the internet, we can be abused, scammed, hurt physically or mentally, even murdered, by someone whom we do not know.
The stranger may, indeed, bring us danger. Then we fear the unknown, the weird, the ‘unheimlich,’ that is, the sinister or uncanny.
The Stranger – Norman Garstin. Wikioo.
However, in his fascinating book, ‘The Power Of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World‘ , Joe Keohane, speaking to an employee at the ‘National Center For Missing And Exploited Children,‘ is told that the term ‘stranger danger‘ has been abandoned “in favour of a more nuanced and practical approach that reflects the data.”
The Centre’s research has indicated that, although they do happen, “stranger abductions are rare” and being too assiduous about warning a child to keep away from strangers can be counter-productive, as, most often, it is strangers who come to assist them.
The most effective way of dealing with this is to help a child become aware, as far as is possible, about who may be of help and who may be dangerous.
For example, a mother with children, or a firefighter, may be strangers, but they are more likely to be offering safety, whereas someone approaching them wanting help, or trying to touch them, must be avoided. (see Page 165 in this book for more on this issue.)
“Too often we presume that the unexpected strangers in our lives bode ill, or we are skeptical of their designs. We think we know more.
And while I am well aware that there is indeed all manner of malevolence in the ether, there is benevolence there, too.”
The Tired Traveller. Jan Steen 1655-60. Wikimedia Commons.
“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”
- Talking To Strangers.
Christian Rohlfs – Conversation de clowns. Wikimedia Commons.
“Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”
If we do decide to talk to a stranger, we may ask ourselves: Where do we start? What do we say?
A fear of being rejected may prevent us from starting to talk to a stranger, or perhaps being thought of as ‘odd’ or lonely.
We may wonder whether they will mind us starting a conversation with them…. or whether we will be ignored.
If we are, nevertheless, prepared to take a calculated risk, talking to strangers can be productive, stimulating and interesting.
We may find that we have interests or opinions that are similar. We may meet a soulmate, a kindred spirit.
It is not uncommon to hear of people who have met on a train ending up married to each other!
Stranger on a Train – Luc Tuymans. Wikioo.
“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”
On The Train, Albert Müller and Kirchner – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Wikioo.
“It was a train full of strangers, and they were all the same.”
In some instances, the stranger can be our salvation, rescuing us when we may be in need, helping us, giving us food and shelter.
There are usually some people around, depending on the circumstances, to whom we might go for help in a dire situation.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
- Projection: The Scapegoat.
Konštantín Bauer – Refugees  Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants.[In Nazi War Trials.] A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
G. M Gilbert
Sometimes, the kindness of strangers fails.
Failed Empathy is the title of a paper by psychiatrist Dori Laub. The phrase is explained as the refusal to help someone who is in desperate need.
Thus the ‘idea of a person’ as a fellow traveller through life, the sense of an ‘other’ who will be alongside us, is destroyed.
In its place is an emptiness, an aloneness, created by the trauma and the sadism of the other in the place of empathy and love.
“Humankind seems to have an enormous capacity for savagery, for brutality, for lack of empathy, for lack of compassion.”
Sadly, and tragically, people do often reject difference and show a lack of empathy to others in dire circumstances.
Anything that is strange, unfamiliar or atypical might be seen as bad.
It is as if there is in certain people a fear, a threat, of being somehow depleted, robbed, infiltrated, contaminated, taken over. Sameness is valued, difference frowned upon.
The ‘other’ or ‘they’, ‘them’, the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger, or whatever, automatically become the enemy because they are seen as ‘not us.’
This is a kind of primitive, animalistic instinct; if a canary escapes from its domestic setting, it is sometimes killed by garden birds, because of its perceived differences.
“Small minds have always lashed out at what they don’t understand.”
Thus, in human terms, we often project the disliked aspects of ourselves onto ‘the stranger.’ We may then regard the stranger as ‘bad,’ dishonest, ‘alien,’ which allows us to be all good.
This is a kind of scapegoating, enabling us to temporarily rid ourselves of aspects that we are ashamed or afraid of.
‘Most human cultures have been known to deploy myths of sacrifice to scapegoat strangers. Holding certain aliens responsible for the ills of society, the scapegoaters proceed to isolate or eliminate them. This sacrificial strategy furnishes communities with a binding identity, that is, with the basic sense of who is included (us) and who is excluded (them). So the price to be paid for the construction of the happy tribe is often the ostracizing of some outsider: the immolation of ‘the other’ on the altar of the alien.’
“If you are different from the rest of the flock, they bite you.”
- Taking Back Our Projections: Acknowledging Our ‘Shadow.’
Interior with Shadow – Roy Lichtenstein.Wikioo.
‘Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’
Jung’s shadow refers to the darker parts of the personality of which we may be unaware.
If we remain in denial about the existence of our own shadow, we will tend to project that darkness onto others.
Such paranoid ways of thinking involve unconscious projection onto the other of one’s own unwanted or unacceptable fears.
This involves the mechanism of splitting, of black and white thinking, where the world is divided into people who are wholly good, (often great, powerful leaders), and the utterly evil, who will be vilified and scapegoated as outsiders.
Condemnation of another, or an ethnic group, as dishonest, grasping or lazy might, for a short time at least, leave one feeling smugly virtuous.
However, the negative feelings inside, unresolved and ignored, will return, ready to be projected out onto some other unwitting victim.
The Monster. Odilon Redon.Wikioo.
“We all hold a monster inside. The only difference is what form it takes when freed.”
If we are unaware of the ‘monster inside,’ of our own potential to be cruel, murderous, evil or sadistic, then, inevitably, we will search for others to label as monstrous, thus avoiding facing our own darkness, our own shadow side.
This way of thinking develops into one that abhors difference, hates, yet needs ‘the enemy.’ Then we are unable to see the self in the other, cannot recognise that in all of us lies the potential for evil.
There is an old saying which urges us to remember that ‘when you point the finger at someone, remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you.’
‘The ‘alien’ is revealed accordingly as that most occluded part of ourselves, considered so unspeakable that we externalise it onto others. The more foreign someone is the more eligible they are to carry the shadow cast by our unconscious. Strangers become perfect foils since we can act out on them the hostility we feel towards our own strangers within.’
Alien Child – Carroll Cloar. Wikioo.
If we can first make a connection between the various inner aspects of ourselves, start to admit into consciousness thoughts and feelings previously repressed and denied, then we might get in touch with the stranger inside, the part of ourselves hitherto unconsciously regarded as ‘alien.’
Psychotherapy may be necessary to help us connect with aspects of our unconscious in this way.
Then we will, hopefully, learn to recognise the self in the other, to withdraw our projections and begin to treat those whom we do not know, or who might appear different from us, with kindness and empathy.
Young Girl Struck by Sadness. Pablo Picasso. Wikioo.
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.’
Do you believe in the kindness of strangers? Do you have an example of this in your own life? If so, I’d really appreciate you sharing this in the comments section. Thank you. Linda.
© Linda Berman.