A Community of Strangers

I once heard a priest say, “We are relationships,” and I was so impressed I wrote it down. And then forgot about it until just last weekend when I stumbled across it while thumbing through some old papers. (In the course of my periodic ‘deep cleans’ I almost inevitably end up spending at least half an hour just rifling through piles of loose-leaf paper, on which I’ve scribbled notes to myself, moving sayings, fragments of stories, and even–on the rare, rare occasion–smatterings of poetry. I have a drawer full of these papers, and I should probably just throw them away, but something holds me back…)

It’s a weird thought, actually, and (for me at least) an uncomfortable one. We “are” relationships. They’re not just something we have or something we do, they’re part of our very being. Being made in the image and likeness of a Triune, relational God, we share something of His relational nature. I am a rugged, stubborn individualist, and this fact about the human person is a hard one for me to swallow.

Still, growing up in a large family, I couldn’t really avoid it. You can’t help but view yourself as relationship when you’re surrounded by six younger siblings and two parents and all sorts of neighbors, friends, fellow members of co-ops and classes, co-workers, pets, etc. Solitude was rare. Really, really rare. For a little while I actually hid a lamp in my bedroom closet, and when I could steal away I’d crawl in there with a book to hide. (Fire hazard, yes. But I would spend some really blissful moments of freedom and quiet in that closet, until the family got wise to my absence and set off in pursuit.)  I was relationship: daughter, sister, friend, classmate, etc.

But now that I’m out on my own, things have gotten fuzzier. I’m still daughter, sister, and friend, of course, but the parents, siblings, and friends aren’t necessarily active parts of my daily life. Gone are the days of retreating to a closet to be alone. In fact, I spend most of my time alone, even at work, given the nature of my job (editing/publishing). And yet I am still relationship(s). Granted, some days the only relational role I play is that of customer, yet my thirty-second interaction with the bleary-eyed woman behind the Safeway counter is still part of my being relational…isn’t it?

I tend to cast off these fleeting interactions with others as inconsequential. Fear of the unknown, coupled with a blanket fear of people, makes me terrified of unknown people. But let’s face it: I’m a single person, and strangers make up the bulk of my relational life. (I mean, I spend more time with my fellow commuters on the metro each day than I do with my family members.) So instead of giving in to my own tendency to keep strangers strange, I have to buck up and reach out–maybe not effusively, but at least a little. Of course this doesn’t really fit the idyllic community model, but how often in our lives do we actually find ourselves living out the idyllic model? Ask any mother surrounded by clamoring children, mountains of laundry, and a to-do list as long as her arm and she’ll tell you even the ideal isn’t ideal. What was it Mother Theresa said? “Bloom where you’re planted.”

Right now Christ is seeking me from the depths of strangers’ eyes–the Safeway cashier, the middle-aged man in the metro seat next to me, the homeless woman on the corner. I am relationships…not just the close, loving ones that build me up and give me the stamina to keep moving forward, but the odd, fleeting ones that occur five, ten, or fifty times over the course of a single day. I may be single, but I’m no more free to charter my own ruggedly individual course now than I was as a teenager living at home. The signs may be harder to read (no more frantic mother or sister hollering my name from the foot of the stairs), and the process harder to figure out and follow (there’s a pattern to family things, no matter how seemingly disorganized; like a job, you eventually figure it out, even when out-of-the-ordinary events occur; no such pattern exists in the disconnected interactions with random strangers), but the main fact remains: I am relationships, and thus it is in relationships that I will find God. The question (and the challenge) then becomes: am I willing to seek him, to find him, and even to embrace him wherever he may be, regardless of my comfort level?

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One thought on “A Community of Strangers

  1. This is so true…how much of our human interactions as single people (in my case, the hours when I am not at work) are made up of interactions with strangers. I think it is hard because there is much less consistency in our daily interactions, especially when living in a big city. In this case it takes all the more faith and trust to believe that God will use our reaching out to touch others, and the reaching out of others to touch us.

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