Tell me, how many people do you know?
All told, with my large family, long career in government, Facebook friends, Linked-In contacts, blog followers, people I’ve met, even those reading this article, I may “know” a few hundred people—or at least, they know who I am.
That is, I might know their name, or face, or maybe a few tidbits about them. But in most cases I really don’t know them well. I don’t know the names of their children or where they live exactly. I don’t know their deepest wishes or their most cherished goals. I don’t know their hearts.
This anonymity, where I only know a little about my friends and nothing about the tens of thousands of people, millions and billions of people who will never know me, can be a great comfort sometimes.
If you think about it, though, people are all “strangers” at one point. Which is strange—especially because the word strange comes from the Latin extraneus, which means foreign. When you first met your spouse or your best friend or your closest colleague, were they foreign to you? No, probably not—you just hadn’t gotten to know them. It’s that way with everyone, really. The poet William Butler Yeats said it this way: “There are no strangers here—only friends you haven’t met yet.”
We think of someone strange or foreign as a person with different customs, different clothing, a different language or different perspectives. When we encounter foreignness, we can have two very divergent reactions: an interested curiosity or a disinterested aversion. We can be open or closed. I’m here to tell you that life can be so much more interesting and exciting when we’re open to new experiences, new ways of thinking and new friends.
The Baha’i teachings ask everyone to be open, and never closed:
This advice, common to all of the great Faiths, challenges us to look for the good in all people, no matter their culture, country or color. It makes a simple request directly to our hearts: don’t close up. Stay open, and receptive, and ready, to make a new friend, anyplace and at any moment. Be friendly. Share your smile. Think about strangers as friends you haven’t met yet:
When a man turns his face to God he finds sunshine everywhere. All men are his brothers. Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries. Do not look at them as though you suspected them of being evil-doers, thieves and boors. You think it necessary to be very careful, not to expose yourselves to the risk of making acquaintance with such, possibly, undesirable people.
I ask you not to think only of yourselves. Be kind to the strangers, whether come they from Turkey, Japan, Persia, Russia, China or any other country in the world.
Help to make them feel at home; find out where they are staying, ask if you may render them any service; try to make their lives a little happier.
In this way, even if, sometimes, what you at first suspected should be true, still go out of your way to be kind to them — this kindness will help them to become better.
After all, why should any foreign people be treated as strangers?
Let those who meet you know, without your proclaiming the fact, that you are indeed a Baha’i.
Put into practice the Teaching of Baha’u’llah, that of kindness to all nations. Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 15-16.
After immersing myself in Baha’i culture and writings, mingling with the Baha’is and many others, I too came to realize that there are no strangers, not really. My wife-to-be and I were total strangers in high school art class, until one day Janet said to me, “Oh, I like your sculpture!” (It was flat and terrible) That was the tiny opening that began our journey together for 47 years.
We are all strangers at one time, and just going out of our way a little tiny bit can make all the difference—the difference between shunning a soul and missing out on love, or loving that soul and being fulfilled mentally, spiritually, even physically.
As I look back and ask my wife Janet what could have possibly attracted her to me, her answer was short. “You seemed like you had a good heart.” I certainly fell in love with her good heart.
The vast majority of the human beings on the planet have good hearts, if we give them a chance or two. So reach out to a stranger sooner rather than later. It might just change your life.