Stranger (is not always) Danger
How might we engage with others in ways that seek ‘connection’, rather than efficacy? What may we do to move toward ‘meeting’ others (even if only for a brief moment), rather than attending ‘meetings’ where the only purpose is outcomes? Why at times can we feel challenged connecting with new people?
All of these questions, and more, emerged as I reflected on a conversation shared recently with John*. I’ll elaborate further on this shortly.
Before I do though, let’s begin with a story from my childhood.
Growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, children in Australia were indoctrinated into the ‘Stranger Danger’ campaign (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stranger_danger). As a child of this era, one could not escape messages of; “don’t trust anyone you don’t know” and, “beware of ‘strange’ people, as they must be dangerous”.
There were some good reasons behind the campaign; kidnapping, child sexual abuse & kids going missing. In Australia there were a small number of traumatic and horrific events that I can recall hearing about on the ‘six o’clock news’, and I wouldn’t wish any of those dreadful occurrences on anybody. Although these ‘events’ were rare, it didn’t stop the (various forms of) media from amplifying them to a point that some kids became worried, anxious and nervous about contact with new people – it wasn’t safe.
What a challenging irony, that with a campaign designed to ensure Safety, a by-product was that that kids felt unsafe. I wonder how much of this ‘hyper-safety’ thinking may have led to today’s increased levels of anxiety, addiction and loneliness (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html)?
Back to my story with John.
I was on a short flight recently and the plane was only half full. From what I could see, most people had no-one sitting next to them except John and me. As is my usual practice, I boarded with papers and reading in hand. There’s a lot happening at this time of year and I’ve much that I’d like to achieve before the year finishes, so I was looking forward to reading through the papers, it would be an efficient use of my time.
My plans changed.
John is in his mid 70’s and he politely greeted me as I sat beside him. He introduced himself and told me that he had been visiting his primary school for ‘speech day’, a tradition that has developed over the past 15 years. John told me that it’s an event that he looks forward to with anticipation every year.
John is a retired General Practitioner (GP), although he says that he still works a few days a month, just to ‘stay in touch’ and also because he really enjoys ‘helping’ others. He confessed too that he relishes the many conversations he has with his patients, learning about their lives, families and challenges. John appreciates ‘being’ with others and his ‘meetings’ seem as much about ‘communing’ than they are about outcomes.
Had I followed the instructions from ‘stranger danger’, there would have been no discussion with John on that plane. Instead, we enjoyed a delightful conversation.
Whilst John and I were talking, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the other passengers were fixated either on their technological devices or were reading business material (I could see the graphs, tables and charts – and fair enough, most were probably flying for work purposes). They seemed to be very pre-occupied, most likely preparing for the type of meeting where ‘no real meeting takes place’. On boarding the plane, I was planning on doing the same, however the papers that I boarded with remained ‘safely in the seat pocket in front of me’.
Meanwhile, John and I learned a lot about each other as our conversation continued. We talked about our families, our work and interests. I learned about his wife, who is a Professor of Mental Health Nursing and has written 15 books and published more than 300 papers. I learned also of his 3 kids; incidentally, one of whom was born in the ‘year of the pig’, his 8 grandkids and importantly his 4-month-old dog. Our shared questions prompted a conversation that included; ‘i-thou’, ‘social influences in life’ and a contemplation of what it means to be ‘in community’ with others.
In John’s words, it was a ‘most delicious conversation’.
You may be thinking; ‘so what, you had a chat with a bloke on a plane, no news here’, and I can understand this. But the point of this story is multifaced and to me, it threw up some questions that I thought might be worth reflecting on:
· How often, in our busy and efficiency-focused lives, do we miss the opportunity to connect with others and therefore also miss important opportunities for learning, growing and developing?
· How may campaigns such as ‘stranger danger’ paradoxically while promoting ‘Safety’, may at the same time lead to anxiousness and loneliness?
· What if our focus was on discernment rather than the elimination of, or the fear of, risk?
What would you do if you sat next to John on a plane?
*Name not changed, as this was a chat with a real bloke called John. A real person and a real conversation – how delicious indeed!
Author: Robert Sams