Conversations with Strangers: A Reflection

As an introvert I’ve always felt a little overwhelmed and uncomfortable with small-talk and general chat-chat. Especially with people I don’t really know.

I’m also not the sort of person who will randomly chat to strangers when I’m out and about, unless there is a specific need for it and I can see value in making a contribution.

It’s not because I don’t like people, or because I’m not friendly. I love people and I’d like to think I’m very friendly when you get to know me. I’m just exceptionally reserved and shy around people when I first meet them, and my initial response is to make like a frightened turtle and retreat back into my shell.

If someone asks me a question or requests thoughts or feedback, I’m very happy to offer a listening ear, or to share information, insights or observations if I feel they will add value. But I struggle with idle conversation about the weather, or what happened during the day.

I also generally won’t speak up unless I feel exceptionally passionate about something, or if I feel I have something positive to add to the conversation.

I do wave, smile, and nod when I pass people in the street. But generally I tend to keep to myself.

Because of my lack of social conversation, I can be hard to get to know – initially perceived as rude or unapproachable or snobbish. I’m often left sitting alone if I’m not in the right frame of mind to engage. So I spend most of my time observing and listening to other people’s conversations.

What I am, however, is a big lover of deep conversation. The really gritty stuff where we conquer the mysteries of the world, debate our philosophical and world views, share our thoughts on arts and culture, open up to our feelings and emotions, and really get to the core of what’s going on in life.

Basically, I love all the subjects we’re not meant to cover on a surface level. I say – let’s rip it all open and bare our souls. No judgement. No assumptions. No arguments. Just truck loads of passion and curiosity.

I’m also one of those people who, when I do take the time to ask you how you are, I actually want to hear the answer. I find many people ask the question and then keep walking, as if it’s somehow rhetorical or a polite gesture instead of a genuine question.

Yep – I can spend hours rumbling around with all that stuff. Which sadly, is when most people start to step away. It’s too confronting, too controversial, too touchy feely. Let’s get back to the weather, or what we did over the weekend, or the latest movie we saw.

Yawn….

In times of awkward silence, I can often be heard saying – “Right, let’s get real. Let’s share our truth. What’s going on for you right now”

I also love hearing people’s stories, learning more about where they come from, what their background is, how they’ve become the person they are, what makes them tick, how they view the world, what excites them and what scares them to death. Not in the sense of gossip – I can’t stand gossip. I love peeling back people’s layers, because I firmly believe that every living being has a story worth hearing, and some of the most unsuspecting people are often so much more interesting than your initial perception may lead you to believe.

In fact, I’ve heard many stories that I’ve never shared with anyone. Simply because they’re not my stories to tell, and I feel honoured and humbled by someone trusting me with their truth.

Sometimes I must have a look on my face that draws people to me. And they start telling me things. Anything, really.

Just the other day, my husband and I went for a drive to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. It’s a beautiful area, with rolling hills and green pastures and beautiful winding roads lined with trees.

We had a walk around the town of Bowral, and then drove on to Kangaroo Valley where there is an old cheese factory that has been converted into a café and a small store. We had lunch at the café, and enjoyed browsing through some old books and magazines that were on the shelves. We had a huge window in front of us that overlooked an old steam railway and lush green meadows with wild flowers.

I was about to pop into the bathroom before we left, and noticed there were a couple of other ladies waiting before me, so my husband and I stood in the winter sun, soaking up the warmth as we admired the history of the building and its quiet surroundings.

I noticed a man standing nearby. He was a little dishevelled – almost dirty and homeless looking – he was wearing an old baggy jumper, faded tracksuit pants that were grubby and frayed at the ends. He had long matted hair and a long course beard.

The man started walking towards me waving at me with a pair of colourful hand-knitted socks.

“Do you know…” he says, slowly walking towards us “I went all the way to Berry for a pair of these socks and paid over $30 for them. Then today I found them here for $9 and they’re so much thicker and warmer.”

I hesitated at first, and didn’t say anything – I just smiled.

“It’s a beautiful day out here isn’t it?” he continued.

“Yes it is a beautiful day” answered both my husband and I.

Then out of nowhere, the man proceeds with “I was in a really bad accident a few years ago, and was in hospital for 10 months. It was a miracle I survived”

I wasn’t sure whether to ask what happened or not, but for some reason it felt like life was sending me a message of some sort, and that I needed to hear this man’s story.

We listened for about 45 minutes about his motorbike accident, and how he slipped on some black ice on the road and slid under a truck. He spoke about his extensive injuries to his arms, legs, spine, stomach and his head. He shared how we was stitched back together and has numerous steel rods in his body holding his bones together. He also suffered irreversible brain damage that impacts his speech and some basic cognitive functions. He spent nine months in hospital and two years in rehabilitation learning to walk, talk, regain his motor skills and coordination, and to become independent again.

He went on to say that although he used to be a successful business man with a large property portfolio, race horses and a sheep station, he felt deep in his soul that his accident was a blessing from God.

That he felt without the accident he would have died from stress and fatigue and from living too hard and not caring enough for his mind, his soul and his body. He would have missed out on the life he has now.

Following the accident he sold his property and several businesses, and moved to a quiet town on the south coast where his sister can take care of him.

He also shared with us how much simpler his life has become, and even though he’s not able to work anymore due to his brain damage, he now spends more time with his family and friends. He is absolutely loving life and feels so thankful for the second chance he has been given.

Together he and his sister spend hours sitting in nature, appreciating the world around them, sharing past memories and creating new memories together along the way.

“I tell you, people complain a lot about little things these days. But for me, life couldn’t get any better. Your health and happiness is more important than anything, you know. Before this accident, I wasn’t really living. Now I’m living!”

Wow.

My initial judgement of this man – seemingly dirty and homeless – was so off the mark. I felt like I’d been given 45 minutes with a zen master!

This was a man with a story, a soul and a heart so big and full of love for the world around him, and such appreciation for the simple things. Someone who had come through a horrific tragedy and survived, with more strength and faith and determination to live than anyone I had ever met.

I truly believe we were sent a small reminder from above that day, and it certainly hit home just how beautiful it can be to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

Although I don’t think we offered him any more than a listening ear and a small moment of our time, both my husband and I walked away feeling lighter and somehow blessed and humbled to have met this man. A totally unexpected twist to our day.

As he turned his back and continued on with his day, I no longer saw a dishevelled, dirty and homeless man. I saw someone wise, happy and loving. Completely comfortable in his own skin, and totally thankful for the journey that gave him another day to live once more.

I saw a man who was delighted with a cosy pair of warm, hand knitted socks.

As we drove back home through the tree lined streets and curved roads, I don’t think the grass ever looked greener, or the light coming though the gaps in the trees ever looked brighter. Something truly lovely had taken place. I think they call it perspective…

So now I think I’m going to revisit my stance on conversations with strangers. You never know what you may learn about someone.

Or what you just might learn about yourself.

2 thoughts on “Conversations with Strangers: A Reflection

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