Engaging the Stranger

A Small Clearing

It may be only among strangers in airports or waiting rooms, planes or elevators, that I manage to suspend my well-honed biases. Oh, I know, we must always receive the stranger as a guest, lest we miss entertaining angels unawares. But it is only when I have read everything in sight or played enough Solitaire on my iPhone I will look up wondering if there is a conversation worth having. 

Travelers have a destination in common. It’s a good place to start. In unfamiliar places, foreign locations, I am readier to engage someone who might know a little more or seems as lost as I. Company in misery. On tours participants share the interest that led to a common appreciation, cameras at the ready for long-envied sights. Proximity lends itself to familiarity that is mostly nonthreatening. Such an approach might be useful in other situations.

Such encounters may be what philosopher Anthony Appiah calls “sidling.” Rather than confront someone with religious or political views opposed to mine, he suggests “sidling up” to them. Sidling is a better way to construct a bridge across a chasm of differences–race, religion, gender, economics, politics–than to exchange opposing points like a ping pong ball. Instead of trading shots without hope of common ground, it might be more productive to describe where I was when I was six, then invite a conversation partner to share. Childhood, schools, and early work could fill a canvas with family experience, a list of callings, nuance that makes up a whole person. This brings the background to the foreground and might justify or just explain the values any of us holds when and if we get around to examining more divergent views. 

I have an email pal in North Carolina I’ve never met. A staunch Southern Baptist, she believes the Bible is inerrant and that “total truth” cannot only be discerned, but practiced. We have been corresponding for a number of months. We do not agree. But she, in particular, finds the correspondence heartening. I’m not sure I do. She knows I am a person of faith. She just can’t figure out why I don’t share her beliefs. She’s curious how I manage it. How I preach the Word without her Truth.  She has sent two books to convince me. 

I am trying to glance off the obvious differences between us. To make myself a little vulnerable with a few personal experiences, tangents and questions. I spend a great deal of time thinking how to do this, a lot more work than firing off a volley to squelch her last assertion. I grew up exchanging volleys with my dad, a competition rather than dialogue. I’m used to it, used to hearing it everyday.

It may be that humankind has come to a place where our ping pong habit can get us nowhere. There is no return: unless we learn to listen to one another, we won’t be able to go on together at all. Sidling up to each other may create a small clearing before the great divides. I am convinced that dialogue will not open into its rich wealth of gifts unless one of us dares say more–or less–than a trite closed statement. I hope what I am practicing will lead me to entertain more angels unawares.