An acquaintance from high school recently posted the following quote on Facebook: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I responded, “You know, I’ve been writing a bit on close relationships lately, but hadn’t stopped to consider the important & frequent role that strangers do play in our lives, especially considering that everyone we’re close to started out as a stranger–at least on a conscious level. Thanks for the reminder!”
As he’s a theater director in NYC, it should have been no surprise to me that the line was from a play or film. He informed me that he agreed with my sentiment, but that the original context of the words gave it quite a different meaning. As he put it, and as I confirmed through seeing a YouTube clip from A Streetcar Named Desire, “Those are the words of a bats**t insane aging southern belle as she’s being carted off to the loony bin.”
The irony of this gave me a laugh, and I expressed my appreciation that my ignorance had provided a deeper insight than I would have experienced had I already been familiar with the line. Kind of like Zen mind, beginner’s mind. So I got a second lesson in open-mindedness and humility, alongside the reflection upon the role of strangers.
Around that same time, another friend had posted a quote from one of his own self-empowerment books: “Never be afraid to go by yourself to something.” He had recently gone to a ball game alone, and as evidenced by the photo he had posted, he had a great time.
This got me thinking even more about the role of new people, or strangers, in our lives. I first thought of recent times when I had gone to specific events alone. I have often met people with whom I shared great conversations, and on occasion I’ve connected with people who came to play an ongoing role in my life.
I next considered how on several occasions, I had moved to entirely new locations where I didn’t yet know anyone at all, or perhaps only my partner. At age 17, I had never traveled beyond Ohio’s boundaries, and left to attend a wealthy east coast boarding school on scholarship. A few years later, I was off to college in yet another state. There, I did not know anyone beyond the few boarding school friends and acquaintances who were also there.
Upon moving to Baltimore with my partner just after college, I didn’t know anyone other than her—and even the two of us had been long distance for most of the two years we had known each other. It was a similar situation when we moved to Pittsburgh four years later.
In each of these cases, I had to rely a great deal upon the kindness of strangers. (And fortunately, I didn’t get carted off to an asylum!) In each case, enough of them came through so that I was able to share some great connections. And even though I’m occasionally pretty introverted, it often didn’t take all that long, either. In fact, two of the wonderful people I’m closest with today, I met on either my first or second day in a brand new location where I initially didn’t know anyone.
One of my latest realizations is that through many of my life endeavors, what I’ve often actually been seeking is connection and authentic exchange of energy with highly conscious people, but often in an indirect way. And I think it’s normal for others who are seeking the same to gravitate toward one another, sometimes in seemingly effortless ways when we are open to it.
I’m not advocating for clearing the slate and throwing ourselves into entirely new settings constantly, as most of us have a need for connection and security as well. I’ll be the first to admit that I need some familiar connection and security to balance out my adventures, as I can become a bit overwhelmed and disoriented when I don’t. But I do think it’s a good thing to do from time to time.
I believe that a few things happen to speed the process of connecting—and to increase our authenticity—when we’re in new settings without anyone previously familiar to us.
First, we’re often forced to allow ourselves to be more vulnerable, just through being reminded how much we are dependent upon others for a range of basic needs. Because of that, keeping up the “I’m so independent and capable” armor isn’t really feasible. We have to connect with others, and our forced to reveal many of our needs.
Related to this, giving to others with our talents, assistance, or energy is also a powerful way to bond, for all parties involved. If in doubt about this, think back to the last time someone came to you needing your opinion on something important to them, a shoulder to cry on, or some other favor, however small. And think back to the last time you had to ask for the same. How did it impact your perception of connection with them?
Secondly, when we’re in any setting exposed to the same primary contacts consistently, we can become defined by the same identity and interaction patterns we exhibited when we first met. This is particularly the case when many or most of those contacts are relatively superficial. There isn’t a depth of connection that allows us to recognize, appreciate, and share reflections about, more subtle changes in one another. It can also be the case when one or more people in a setting are committed to change, but others in that setting, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to accommodate this change.
On the other hand, when we’re in a new setting, especially in one where we know few or no people, we’re less attached to our prior roles and are freer to be in the now. If we believe that there’s little chance of seeing many of the people in the future, we may further lower our inhibitions. We may be more willing to let our freak flags fly. That might include our geekiness, our sexiness, our playfulness–the list could go on and on.
An example of this would be meeting several people at a time in your life when you’re fairly shy and conservative with how you physically express yourself. So you tend to attract friends who do the same. A few years later, you attend the party of a brand new friend who holds relatively wild dance parties. You don’t know anyone else there, so you act a bit more freely than usual.
You discover that you really like to dance in a really sexy sort of way, and that it makes you feel incredibly alive and liberated. But your old and dear friends aren’t ready for such settings, and refuse to go to any such events with you. So at least for dancing, it may be time to make some new friends; otherwise you may end up suppressing an important part of yourself.
I have a theory that as we get older and more in touch with who we are (at least the latter is what usually happens), we make connections that resonate even more strongly with our authentic selves. This is because we’re putting our authentic selves out there with more confidence and energy, which will attract people aligned with that. Because of this, the new connections we make as we continue to age, grow, and increase our integrity may become just as deep and profound, if not even more so, than those we made when we were younger.
The irony to this is that as we enter middle age, most of us have already established a circle of closeness that makes us comfortable, reducing our motivation to establish connections in new settings. Often, it may be that our lives are already so full with connections that we simply don’t have much energy to devote to more right now.
If our familiar connections are working well for us and those around us, then there may be little need to expand at this time. But if they are not, then great opportunity may exist in stepping outside the box and trying some things alone.
I’m not at all suggesting that friendships and connections going back to childhood or early adulthood don’t have a lot of value. Alongside having a lot of fun with such friends, we can share very powerful observations and insights about each other with people we’ve known for extended periods.
There’s a lot to be said for the comfort and intimacy of someone we’ve known for a really long time, as long as each person honors and respects how the other has grown and changed over time, and support the other in that. I have a few dear friends who fit this category. In other words, we’re not locked into the same exact patterns and identities that we were when we initially met.
We may also find ourselves in cases where we’re reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances we haven’t seen or kept in touch with very much over the years. I think of this as the 20-year reunion for one of my high school classes approaches in just a few weeks. These have many of the characteristics of new settings, because chances are that many of the people have changed a great deal.
Sure, their faces will look familiar with perhaps some shifts in hair thickness/color and a few signs of aging, and there will be many personality traits that have remained the same, but they have likely grown with the accumulation of new life experiences. Some of the people we resonated strongly with then, we will still resonate strongly with now.
The tricky thing, of course, is to avoid getting so caught up in nostalgia that we treat it only as a setting of familiar people. We can’t assume that the same people we resonated with 10 or 20 years ago will necessarily resonate the most strongly with us now; and we can’t assume that the ones we didn’t click with won’t offer opportunities for profound connection now.
Also, we need to do our best to put our authentic selves out there, especially if we weren’t doing so then, rather than regressing back into our less-authentic selves. Much of this, of course, depends upon how long ago we last saw them, and how old and authentically-behaving we were when we first met them.
Back in high school, for example, I strove to be the perfect student, liked by both teachers and peers. I showed some of my creative side, and strove to be as authentic as I could, but I was still sure to cross all my t’s and dot all my i’s. I did almost everything by the book. Today, I still have many of these tendencies, but I much more often push the status quo. And I do so in ways that make some people very uncomfortable, and other people more energized and easier to connect with.
There are also the rare cases of meeting someone new with whom we resonate so strongly that we feel we’ve known them for a long time. This may bring not only feelings of both comfort and excitement, but in the best cases may also challenge us to grow in new ways.
It’s those cases where we’ve gotten in touch with important parts of ourselves, and are willing to put them out there courageously, that this is most likely to occur. And when we are lucky enough to encounter someone else who is willing to do the same, it’s not something to take for granted. For the reasons mentioned above, this might be even more likely in new settings. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have experienced this as well.
A few questions to ask yourself:
- What are some times in your life where you’ve connected with brand new people in unexpected or pleasantly surprising ways?
- If you have times of geographic or relationship transition approaching in your own life, how can you draw upon past experiences to make the shift easier? How have you already made such shifts successfully in the past?
- How mutually supportive of growth and exploration are your own long-term relationships? What changes can be made to make them more so?
- Do you show up differently in new settings and around unfamiliar people than you do in familiar settings around familiar people? If so, how? What do you believe this means?
- How can you bring some opportunity for “on your own” adventure into your life, stretching just a bit, while still respecting your needs for familiarity and security?
- At times when you started out by doing something alone, for how long did you actually remain alone?
Stretching just beyond your comfort zones isn’t always easy, especially on your own. In coaching, I love supporting people to do this. Want to find out how? Contact me to set up a free Discovery Session.
Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.