Strangers All

Encountering the unknown in others

One of the articles in Friends & Lovers (IC#10)
Originally published in Summer 1985 on page 20
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Sanford Forte lives in Seattle, Washington.

WHO IS A STRANGER? A stranger is a manifestation of the unknown; he represents one of many facets of the mystery and wonder of our existence. When encountering someone unknown to us we sense a shared human fate and we recognize a common form – the human body – but we also grapple with the discomfort of what we don’t know about this person.

The tension present upon encountering another is a force that comes from undiscovered places. No science, reductionist or mystical, can hope to completely understand this force, this wellspring of the unknown. Meetings, even between persons who call themselves friends, are often filled with a subtle tension that is not resolved until those involved have gone through a ritual of greeting. Greetings are necessary to help create the belief that a person, even one we consider friendly, is not a complete stranger. Greetings assure us that we have something – if only a smile, nod or handshake – in common with one who is virtually unknown to us.

There is a quality of the unknown even with our friends – we have each changed since our last meeting. The sum total of what you or I have become since we last saw each other comes forward at the moment of encounter and is never fully recognized by our conscious selves. Thus the tension of the unknown. Thus the need for reassurance. Thus the necessity for greeting even the most intimate other.

How we react to the mysterious presence of strangers can give clues to our personal strategies for encountering the unknown. Do we generally say hello to strangers, or acknowledge them before they acknowledge us? How much eye contact do we make with strangers on the street? At a party? In a public restroom? What are the cultural dictates that we follow? How do we generally "size up" a stranger? Do we consider strangers as potentially dangerous or as potential friends? How well do we have to know a stranger before he/she ceases to be a "stranger" and becomes a "friend"? Reflecting on such questions can give us a picture of how we face the unknown, individually and collectively.

Encountering the stranger challenges our need to know and understand, and elicits our fear of what is not known. Yet it is possible to learn to embrace the essence of the stranger, the mysterious. An experience of the encounter between unknowns is beautifully described by David Ignatow in Leaving the Door Open (NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1984):

"Here comes one of my kind. It’s night and I am caught in an open, deserted parking lot as I approach my car – a man, and I should not be afraid of what he may want to do to me, a man like me, with feelings of fear, hatred and love, and with a desire to live, like mine. I should greet him aloud as I would a long-lost brother or friend, recognizing him in the dark after all these years. I should feel good about it, welcoming his identity; and now if he is about to rob or perhaps kill me, I should smile at him as he approaches."

In this carefully wrought piece Ignatow reveals both the desire to know and understand, and the fear of the unknown that rises in all of us when we encounter unfamiliar others of our kind.

The stranger comes not only in human form. It can come as a subatomic particle or a distant galaxy; it can come in the form of places or objects or actions. And we name them. We use language and codes to name the unknown so that we may have the sense of knowing. Once named, things are no longer strange, but become somehow familiar. Witness the familiarity of a current friend who was once a stranger – because he had no name.

Our representations of others, whether persons or things, are never complete, however. The map is not the territory. We never really know the stranger. The mysterious is always present – even in the familiar.

Our culture has many techniques for how to act and be in the presence of strangers. We can reduce the stranger to an "object" or "situation." We can pigeon-hole the stranger into one of hundreds of categories: potential lover, foreigner, client or problem. We can set limits on how much we notice about the stranger – certain cues are apparently enough to help us decide whether or not to return a smile or continue a conversation. In using these techniques and setting these limits we cheat both the stranger and ourselves. We miss an opportunity to see ourselves and the world, for it is through strangers that we can gain insight into our unknown selves.

But the unknown occurs in spite of our attempts to control. When the unknown is "found," we meet the stranger. We find the unknown and we stand in the presence of "becoming." And this spontaneous becoming of the stranger and those who meet the stranger cannot be ignored or halted. Together they are, for the moment of their togetherness, the world. Knowledge gained about the other becomes part of the self, newly discovered. This larger or changed self is then available for discovery by other selves, and so on. In this way do strangers meet and, in a very real sense, become one another, changed forever.

We have all come from starstuff. We all have the same beginning – and it has been a long time since that beginning. We have become differentiated from each other. Memories of many comings and goings into one form or another are now a jumble. We, all of us, organic and inorganic, are connected. Different, yet the same. Even though we appear as strangers to each other, the memory of the essence of our beginning resonates in every quantum of our being. We are from hot gasses and incandescence roaring through silent space. Strangers all, friends all.

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