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What Do Our Encounters with Strangers Teach Us About Ourselves-and Our Connection with Others
"Fear of the stranger is far too common among us-and since September 11th, our fear has only deepened. But in a world rich in human diversity, much depends on understanding how our encounters with 'otherness' can enlarge and renew our lives. Sarah York's superb book opens door after door to that understanding. The Holy Intimacy of Strangers is not only timely but deeply soul-searching and wonderfully well-written. If we are willing to live into its insights, we will feel more at home on earth and help make earth home for others.
— Parker J. Palmer, author, Let Your Life Speak and The Courage to Teach
"In our market driven atomistic age, we are often thrown on the kindness of strangers. In this wise and poignant book, Sarah York shows us how to imbue these relationships with trust-and, yes, love."
— Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author, Creating a Life and chair, National Parenting Association
"The Intimacy of Strangers is a gift to the soul. In an often distracted, coarse, and fear-full culture, Sarah York awakens us to everyday moments of trust, connection, and care-and our capacity to choose what kind of 'strangers' we want to be. This book will unlock your imagination and open your heart."
— Sharon Daloz Parks, coauthor, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World and author, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams
One Sunday morning after a church service, I was meeting with members of my congregation when someone came and whispered to me that there was a strange man waiting in the vestibule. He wanted to see the minister. I knew what that meant: he wanted money, of course, and what better time to be sure to catch the minister at church than on a Sunday morning?
I left the meeting. As I approached the man, I could smell the alcohol on his breath immediately when he spoke. He said, "I want to pray and to turn my life over to Jesus."
Sure you do, I thought, feeling less than charitable and wishing I was anyone but the minister at that moment. I explained that the congregation was gathering for a meeting and suggested that he might find someone available at another church down the street. "No," he said. "That doesn't matter. I just need to be able to pray right now. I have really messed up my life with drugs and alcohol, and I want to make a new start. All I need is a place to pray."
"Well," I said, still expecting to be asked for money, "as you can see, there is a meeting going on in the church. There really isn't an appropriate place for-"
"That doesn't matter," he interrupted. "I just need to pray, now. This is my moment of truth. Now. It has to benow." Then he repeated, "This is my moment of truth."
"I suppose we could go into my office," I said, still thinking that the church down the street would be better able to serve this man's need.
As we entered my office, he fell immediately to his knees and amid sobs he began praying. About that time, I finally caught on. He really had come to church to pray! As he prayed, I placed my hands on his shoulders; when he was finished, I asked him his name and offered a prayer, too, saying his name and asking God to forgive him and give him the strength to change and make amends to his family. Then I talked with him for a few minutes about support groups and drug programs. He left, and I went back to the meeting.
His moment of truth? Yes. But it was my moment of truth, too, because in those few moments when that man was on his knees, I let go of my fear; I let go of my distrust; I let go of my judging. I let go of my awareness of the tremendous gap between what he believed and what I believed. It was, indeed, a moment of truth. It was a moment of holy intimacy, where we two strangers each encountered our own fears and flaws and were held in a bond of sacred trust.
I have shared many precious moments with people in counseling or in conversation, and there has often been an element of grace in those times because of a spiritual connection between us. But in this moment of truth, there was a power at work that brought this strange man and me into a common territory, a territory where human souls connect with each other in a sacred dimension.
In that sacred space, I was not only moved by the power of the moment but given an opportunity to reflect on my own moment of truth, for I had to contend with fears that were uncomfortable for me. For one thing, I was afraid of my own inadequacy. I was the minister of a liberal (Unitarian Universalist) church where we were not accustomed to speaking in terms of "turning our lives over to Jesus." This man was asking for something that was not part of my usual repertoire of pastoral or liturgical offerings. I squirmed within the narrow confines of my own religious perspective, awkward and unwilling to venture into the holy space where I might have to compromise how I express my religious beliefs in order to be present with the stranger.
I was also afraid of being made to feel foolish. So my defenses were in place. If, as I suspected, the stranger wanted money to support his drug habit rather than prayer to help him kick it, I was determined to be wise to his deceptive attempt to weaken my resolve with his story about wanting to pray. I did not want him to take advantage of my goodwill.
But the fear beneath each of these feelings was something more disturbing. My real moment of truth came when I realized that I was not in charge of the situation. When I would hear stories from strangers about why they wanted money, I often chose to believe them and could help them without giving them cash. I gave them restaurant or bus vouchers, or I wrote a check to the phone company from a special discretionary account. I made referrals to other agencies. There was generally something I could do. When this stranger asked for holy presence, however, I could not open a drawer and salve my conscience or hasten his exit with a simple gesture of charity.
My moment of truth was the recognition of a boundary that had, as a result of my own defensive posture, inhibited my receptiveness to spiritual power and my ability to help a person in need. The Spirit blessed this encounter, not because of me, but in spite of me.
Reflecting on my cautious skepticism, I have had to ask, "Suppose this man was just making up the story about wanting to change just to soften me up. What would I lose by believing him? So what, if I'm a fool? What do I lose? Nothing-except control. And so what if the moment evokes an emotional response-a man whose name I don't even know, kneeling and praying and sobbing in my presence? What is there to fear? Nothing-except loss of control. And suppose I am moved to tears myself. What am I afraid of? Nothing-except not having control."
So that is what the real moment of truth was about. I think the moment of truth comes for most of us when we come up against something we cannot control. For me, it meant confronting my awkwardness, my discomfort, my fears, and my resistance. It meant examining my own understanding of God, too. I may as well have said to the man, "I'm sorry, but your God really doesn't live in this church, and my deity is an all-encompassing principle that has neither gender nor ears." The irony is that my expansive god-force would turn out to be smaller than his father in heaven. In the moment of truth that was a moment of grace, it didn't matter. It just did not matter.
What does matter? The moment of truth is a moment of connection, that's all-with the unnamable Spirit, with ourselves, with other human beings who are willing to admit (or perhaps even invite) loss of control. In this surrender to holy possibility and this openness to a common human experience that transcends out particular perspectives, we meet the deep core of ourselves that is not defined by systems of belief, and not threatened by another point of view or a different way of being. This does not mean we lose our individual selves or change what we think; it just means we meet at a level where, having surrendered a layer of identity to a divine or transcendent purpose, we participate in a holy intimacy and receive power from the connection.
STRANGERS AT HOME
A grace-filled connection that occurs with a stranger stirs reflection about how we also defend ourselves against intimacy in our more familiar relationships. Sometimes it is easier to be open to significant connection with a stranger than with our most intimate companions. The issues that we have to confront are the same, however: fear of inadequacy, pride, or stubbornness; hesitation about a situation where someone might take advantage of us; a need to feel we have some control. Although we long to make deep personal and spiritual connection with those we love, we may sometimes find ourselves feeling as though they are strangers to us. We may live according to habitual patterns, or take each other's presence for granted. In simply enjoying one another's companionship, we may not be inclined to explore deeper ways of being together. Perhaps we create ways to avoid conflict or an uncomfortable topic of conversation.
Our moments of truth often occur with family and friends, just as they do with strangers, when we meet a life crisis. Not only do we increase our consciousness of how precious our time is together; we are more aware of our powerlessness and our need for one another when we experience a decline in health, or lose a job, or go through a divorce, or face death, or face the death of someone we love.
One such moment of truth occurred for me in the four days I spent with my father before he died. We had always enjoyed a very loving relationship and never lacked for things to talk about, but our conversation had rarely gone deeper than speculation about whether it would rain, or admiration of a good double play executed by the White Sox. But during our last four days together, I made some precious connections with him, and with my older brother, the only other surviving member of my family of origin.
As my father's kidneys began to fail, I asked the doctor if there was anything he could do. I will not forget his words. "There's always something we can do," he said, allowing his sentence to sit on the air between us, unpunctuated. I completed his train of thought in my mind. Yes, there is always something we can do, but should we? It became apparent that any measures taken by the medical team would only prolong my father's illness and require that he remain in the hospital for an extended time. I asked the doctor to inform him of the situation and of his options. Knowing how much my father dreaded suffering through a long terminal illness, I knew he would not choose to go on dialysis.
I went into his hospital room after the conference with the doctor. "I guess you just got some bad news," I said. "No," said my father, smiling, "good news." His worst fear had been assuaged. "I understand," I said, and then I lay on his bed beside him and sobbed. He understood too.
For several hours, we were present with each other as never before. As a cartoonist who had only a day earlier been honored with the National Cartoonist Society award for Best Story Strip ("Gasoline Alley"), he grieved for the stories he would not write. "I have lots more stories in me," he said, relieved that he would not have to plot the demise of Walt Wallet, the aging patriarch of his comic strip, during his lifetime. He shared some of his personal regrets, but he was not afraid of dying. "I have had a good life," he said, with gratitude. He told me where to find important documents and explained provisions in his will. I had never been able to ask him about such matters, since to do so would have been to introduce the topic of his eventual death-not something I wanted to bring up.
Knowing that death was imminent, I called my brother, who is a heart surgeon. "Come here now," I told him. But he could not accept this sense of urgency. He wanted every medical alternative explored, including dialysis. We argued for several minutes, and then finally I screamed at him, "Daddy is dying! Get on a plane as soon as you can and get yourself out here, damn it!"
My brother arrived the next evening. A few hours after my brother visited with him, our father died. Since then, I have been closer with my brother-able to talk about personal issues that we previously avoided. The moment of truth that surfaced our fear, anger, and despair when our father died was also the moment of grace that invited the presence of the holy into our midst. In the fifteen years since that time, we have related to one another at an intimate level. Although we have our regrets with regard to unexplored depths in our relationship with other family members, we strive to maintain honest communication, which requires that we continue to let go of the fears and defenses that create a barrier to our bond of love and trust.
It does not have to be a loss or tragedy that opens you to the moment of truth. It might be anything that brings you to your knees-literally or figuratively. The moment of truth is a moment of humility and perspective on the self. It might occur when you look out at the stars on a clear night in the desert and get a little perspective on what you do and do not control. Or you may witness the birth of a child and experience the power of creation that is not of your making. These are times when we are brought to our knees-when we are invited to let go of our illusion of power and participate in the creative power of it all. Whether we are humbled by our own inadequacy, touched by the overwhelming beauty of creation, or confronted with the mystery of death, we are acutely aware of how little control we really have. Choices, yes-we have choices about how we will respond to the events of our lives. But when we fool ourselves into thinking we can control those events, we construct an inner barrier that prevents us from experiencing the spiritual power that is available to us.
LOSING CONTROL, GAINING POWER
In the moments of truth I have experienced, I discovered something important: by letting go of my need to be in charge of the situation and allowing myself to be vulnerable, I confronted my own fears. As I met the fears and let go of them, they had less power. In a way, I gained control by being willing to lose it.
If we can receive power by being willing to face what we do not control, we can also lose power by not being willing to face what we cannot control. What it boils down to is that if we have a strong need for control, we are much more likely to become anxious when we don't have it. The higher our level of anxiety, the more likely we are to become stressed or depressed. In fact, the higher our level of anxiety, the more vulnerable we are to any number of health problems. The cycle escalates; more need for control means more anxiety, and more anxiety means more symptoms.
I recall speaking with a friend who remarked, "I feel like my life is living me instead of me living my life." This was more than a yearning for a life that was less busy or less stressful. He was saying that he did not make choices in his life, that he just reacted to what happened to him.
The paradox of trying to gain control of a life that is out of control is that it is likely to spin ever more out of control. Joseph Campbell, with his gift for distilling the wisdom of the world's religions into archetypal images that speak the language of the soul, spoke of living out of the hub of the wheel instead of the rim. That is the difference between living your life instead of being lived by it. Writer Ann Morrow Lindbergh described what that might feel like: "I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out [my] obligations and activities as well as I can. I want ... to live `in grace' as much of the time as possible. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into an outward harmony."
Call it the spiritual core. Call it the hub. Call it the inner light. Call it the spiritual center of the self, which lives life instead of being lived by it. It is this aspect of soul that gives us our meaning and purpose because it aligns us with spiritual purpose.
When my friend confessed that he felt his life was living him, it was a moment of truth for him. He also admitted that he was drinking heavily, but he said he found it humiliating to consider going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I told him that it was humbling-it was humility, not humiliation. Humiliation derives from self-centeredness and pride. Humility is self-centering, that is, it centers the individual in the Spirit and in a larger purpose. Humiliation is what he would suffer if he did not do something to regain his inner freedom. Humility, on the other hand, was the Spirit's way of nudging him toward health, and toward the kind of inner spiritual grace that would enable him to give as he was meant to give.
People who have participated in twelve-step programs designed to assist them with the problems of addiction understand the importance of recognizing their powerlessness. For them, the moment of truth is when they "hit bottom"-when they admit they do not have the power to overcome their addiction. Like the stranger who came to me that Sunday morning wanting to turn his life over to Jesus, many come to their first twelve-step meeting ready to "turn their life over" to a higher power. To admit their powerlessness is an act of courage, for it is stepping into unknown territory. It is painfully humbling. But twelve-step programs work, and one reason they work is because "anonymous" strangers help one another recognize their powerlessness and call upon a power higher than their own.
Excerpted from THE HOLY INTIMACY OF STRANGERS by Sarah York Copyright © 2002 by Sarah York
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Note to Readers.
Chapter One: Moment of Truth.
Chapter Two: Bonds of Freedom.
Chapter Three: Close to Home.
Chapter Four: Fear Itself.
Chapter Five: There But for the Grace of God.
Chapter Six: Secrets and Strangers.
Chapter Seven: Shadows and Strangers.
Chapter Eight: Hospitality: The Gift of Presence.
Chapter Nine: Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall.