On Connecting To Strangers
The Sidewalk Talk Blog
Four people turned up tonight - FOUR magical unicorns.
Within minutes I felt the same level of heart and openness and shared willingness to grow and learn that I have felt over the years in San Francisco at Sidewalk Talk. We each went around and talked about what drew us to sitting and listening and how our experiences in our lives shaped how we view people and how we wanted to serve as a listener.
I mean seriously...how often do you have a first meeting with strangers in a different country and get to come together and co create and be vulnerable all at the same time like this? I am still pinching myself. Real intimacy in a first meeting.
We already have date number two set up.
As we parted ways each member hugged me and said goodbye to me in German. I beamed as they did. All night we had been speaking in English. This felt like a grand gesture that they hugged me and said goodbye and safe travels in their native tongue. What I felt was “you are one of us now”. I told them so. They smiled. And we all left energized.
And so it is with this project - the often under-talked-about magic bond among chapter members where strangers come together to build something special. Some of my dearest friends and people I admire so much are the people I have met listening on sidewalks. We gather month after month to listen and then have dinner together. It is a family of kindness and belonging.
Many people move to new cities and think it will be easy to make friends like university days. But without that vehicle of college, it is hard, really hard. I have done it...twice.
Tonight, I feel so much more hopeful and expansive.
40 seconds…every forty seconds someone dies by suicide around the world. They did not commit a crime. They were escaping what felt like inescapable pain. They were desperate for relief.
For this World Mental Health Day let’s do something together.
In a world where we increasingly value wealth accumulation, attention rather than connection, talking over listening, the need to be extraordinary over the beauty in our ordinariness we are creating the ingredients for mental illness. Add to this reality all the historical traumas, injustices, and degradation to our planet that live on in our world systems and in our hearts and minds the question we can ask is “What can I do today and every day to contribute to creating a mental health promoting community?”
Can we stop blaming people?
A few years ago, my youngest son was depressed. I didn’t know a second grader could talk about harming themselves. I approached the school counselor several times over the year about a bullying issue that terrified my kid. But he was a good looking, smart, privileged kid who liked to talk smack. Her exact words “Your son is fine.” Another mother implied he was struggling because my son was intense like me and I should ignore it. But he wasn’t fine. We intervened on our own and got the support we needed elsewhere. Meanwhile, my kid felt blamed, I felt blamed, I still blame the therapist (working on that one in my own heart still) but there wasn’t much investigation into the community causes of what was happening in our community.
Is mental illness someone’s fault? We don’t think so. We think we all have a part to play.
Since this incident, I have had parent after parent after parent share similar experiences they had in our school community but they left to find a better situation than try to change the system from the inside. But what if you don’t have the resources to get that support or change schools? Then what? We will have an upcoming podcast episode with a Middle School Teacher that is sure to have a lot of insights for us about kids and mental health and we welcome more experts to contact us. We want to hear you.
Connection creates mental health.
Sidewalk Talk is not a mental health project in the way some of our friends who do significant crisis intervention are doing. A deep bow for their work. But any project that creates more connection, be it a book club, a regular bowling night, or a hiking club is contributing to the kinds of mental health giving connections that we aim to provide at Sidewalk Talk.
Sidewalk Talk is hoping to create a global connection culture.
Sidewalk Talk is hoping to create a culture shift where we prioritize listening and connection and learn to develop brains that are more flexible to hear all different kinds of people and their feelings. By sitting on sidewalks we disrupt the busy, wealth-chasing, hyper-individualism that makes us sick and invite a wake up call that connection feels good and makes us healthy too.
What is even cooler, is that sidewalks are a place of equality so maybe, just maybe, we create spaces where power is removed from our connecting. Sidewalk Talk listeners don’t dictate what you share about or how you share. And all listeners come ready to do deep reflecting on the ways their bias might interrupt connection. Remember from my article last week I said we easily make assumptions about seniors? Those are biases in action and they get in the way of connection. We do this based on someone’s length of hair or what brand they are wearing, what they smell like, what color their skin is, or really anything.
What Freud had wrong.
In an upcoming podcast interview that will be released next week, I spoke with Drs. Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt and they said something very interesting. They said “You know Freud had it wrong. He focused on analyzing what was happening inside his patients that caused their symptoms. We think that the problem of mental health is not an internal problem, it is a relational one. “
Harville went on to say “If we put relationships first in our lives we have the potential to create a mental health promoting culture. And that is what makes what you are doing at Sidewalk Talk so revolutionary.”
But guess what?
We aren’t putting relationships first.
Depression and anxiety for young people is on the rise. According to the World Happiness Report (read a synopsis here in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science coverage), we are less happy and more angry than ever.
The definition of mental health and what we can do to create more of it.
The World Health Organization has my favorite definition of mental health because it takes into account the outside, not just the inside.
“Mental Health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” WHO Website
What can I do today, for Mental Health Awareness Day?
So today, October 10th, for World Mental Health Day, pick one of the above. Even a simple hello and a smile when you might otherwise walk past someone makes a difference in your mental health and the mental health of those around you. Consider joining Sidewalk Talk to develop your listening skills in community. Whatever you do, thank you. You matter. Your effort matters. We can change the mental health of our world together.
The woman on the left was listened to by Alejandro earlier. On the right is a Sidewalk Talk volunteer. They bonded for a good hour around their shared love of creating connection. The postcard being held is a sacred space of connection that this talker has created and was on her way to share with Marc Benioff. These senior women combat loneliness by offering up their skill and wisdom.
For those outside the US, AARP is all about empowering people to live however they want as they age. They have 38 million members and are the most widely distributed magazine in the United States. They are a pretty cool organization that I have admired for a long time. AARP was one of the sponsors for the National Poll on Healthy Aging in the United States where 1 in 3 seniors report feeling lonely. You can read more in this TIME Magazine piece that summarizes the poll.
How do we want to be related to as we age?
I was tickled when AARP called me to arrange a photographer to come out and do a social media story on Sidewalk Talk (I also thought “wow this must mean I am fully on my way to seniorhood”). I could not be prouder. My sons like to tease me about my washboard of wrinkles on my forehead and they call me Yoda some days. I explain there are too many good years of laughter and surprise in these lines of mine to feel picked on (and we have some nice conversations about body shaming). AARP is a hero organization because they are helping us keep a celebration and empowerment view of aging.
When I was two, I met my great grandfather and it was love at first sight. Papa Bob was kind, steady, and he smelled so good. I still can feel his polyester shirt against my skin and smell his Old Spice when I close my eyes. He let me put barrettes in his hair and was endlessly patient with my questions “why this” and “how come” that. More recently, in my psychotherapy practice, I have gotten to sit with many seniors and dig deep into their third act and how they are facing mortality. They are wise with insights and still full of possibilities. This year I had my oldest patient, aged 93.
One in three seniors is lonely but solving their loneliness may look different than you think.
What we often get wrong is senior loneliness is very context-dependent. Some seniors want to serve, offer their skills, or be respected for what they have to contribute, not just “taken care of”. One of the assignments I had in high school was to find senior citizens in my neighborhood and interview them about their lives. The imprint of my conversation with Howard and Evelyn is with me to this day. I heard how they grew up during the depression and could feel the fear and resilience with deep admiration. I felt my heart with them when they shared what it was like during the war and their sense of duty and pride. I related to their joy, heartache, love, and loss and how they made it through. The longer I listened their personhood, not their age, took center stage. And from that day forward I have approached older adults with a much different energy of respect and reverence as wise elders.
An 85 Year Old Going on a Date:
Two years ago, I met Al. He sat across from me as I was listening on the sidewalk in Southern California. He had a cane and a sailors hat on and his pressed button down and blue dinner jacket had him looking very stylish. He was in a really good mood and said “I have a date tonight”. He was 85. Al was sparkling about a woman he met and they were meeting for their second “in person” date that night. He described her beauty and their love of reading and music. He then went on a long reverie with me of his love of philosophy and transpersonal psychology books. His age faded far into the background as he schooled me on the great philosophers.
This man was a walking JOY popsicle stick. He didn’t deny his age but he also felt liberated by age. When you are nearing death, joy becomes a big priority. This was one of those moments, and I have had many, where getting to hear someone’s story felt far more meaningful for me than the talker. Al, I hope your date with Sharon went great. (Names disguised for privacy).
I have long desired to have Senior Led Sidewalk Talk chapters.
Often, volunteers want to go be with seniors but one of our ethics at Sidewalk Talk is that compassion happens between equals. If we go to listen to a population that differs from us we have to keep our desire to “save” or “help” in check as that can interrupt the purity of the connection.
Here is a great video clip of Reverend Barbara Meyers, one of our most active volunteers and chapter leaders. She is over 70 and listens more frequently than anyone else, myself included. And she is an introvert. (read full article here).
Seniors are our wise teachers. May they get their loneliness itch scratched by being apart of something that honors their wisdom. A deep and abiding reverence in our listening, guided by the question, “I want to know who you are”, allows us to find out the personal context that will empower our elders to live their third act in alignment with their values, not ours.
I was pretty tickled by the research by Drs. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder. You may have read about their work in this BBC article. Even Malcom Gladwell is getting in on the action with his latest book, Talking to Strangers. He feels strongly we need to do more of this talking to strangers bit. See the video above.
Here is the quick summary of the BBC article:
Perhaps we have our understanding of personal growth all wrong.
...well, not ALL wrong but perhaps we undervalue the power of stranger interactions.
Why? Strangers bring no baggage to the dialogue and more often, stimulate less of ours. When you go to your family’s house if you always felt second fiddle to your older sister there is something in the way of a pure interaction. If you walk in and your parents are talking excitedly to your sister about her new job, the part of you that feels left out is doing some of the connecting.
Imagine talking with a stranger.
You have no history. No beef. No hidden skeletons in the closet (except for your bias which is why Gladwell suggests we need to do it more - to eradicate them). You get to experience a part of you that might be next to impossible to experience except with a stranger. A purer self. A self free from obligation.
Some basic listening skills help us get the most out of stranger interaction.
We have to check our biases - positive and negative based on race, gender, identity, age, dress etc. That is why I get excited about listening at Sidewalk Talk. I get to practice dropping those assumptions and how lovely for me because dropping them frees me up as a listener too to surprise and glee. Not interrupting and allowing yourself to get into a flow of curiosity with “I want to know who you are” as your guiding principle.
Two strangers at the grocery store.
Last week a friend of mine was very sing-songy about a stranger interaction she had that day. Her husband thought the whole exchange was crazy (it wasn’t). She was doing her weekly grocery shopping. At the butcher counter, she heard a man ask the butcher for an “American” preparation of the salmon he just put in his basket. The butcher was confused and too busy to take the time to understand what this man was asking. So my friend asked “Hi, maybe I can help. What are you trying to do?”
The man explained he had been living in the US from India for three years and wanted to try to cook some fresh salmon. They both lived in Seattle where fresh fish is abundant. This gentleman shared he had mostly kept close to other Indian friends in the area and mostly ate Indian food but had made a decision that day that he wanted to know more about the culture he was living in. They had a nice exchange about his experiences so far and my friend shared her love of Indian cuisine. So they had a fun little exchange where they each agreed to share recipes with each other. She would email him her best salmon recipes if he would email her his best dishes from his hometown back in India.
My friend told me they both left the conversation with big grins on their faces. And she was touched and amazed at the power of a stranger interaction. So simple. Free. It reminds me of the pub culture in some ways. When I was a bartender in college I had several people come sit at my bar during the day, they did not order alcohol, but they did come to talk and connect with me and other strangers that happened to come in.
I get the need for solitude and do not want to downplay its importance.
But perhaps we confuse solitude for avoidance. I challenge you to experiment with asking one open-ended question to a stranger who seems open to receiving this kind of attention this week and see what happens. Specifically what assumptions do you make; about the effort involved? about who this person is? about how you will feel after compared to how you do feel?
Stranger things have happened.