The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 9/20/2018
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, Tauck, Nature

It’s a recurring theme with me. It often seems that we live in troubled times. But perhaps the times are no more troubled than the times have always been throughout history. Maybe it just feels particularly rough when I see so many disturbing stories firing at me from all sides 24/7 through a variety of media channels in a news world that never stops churning out horror stories. It’s funny, though. The best antidote I have found to the feelings of horror engendered by those stories is such a simple thing: other people.

In order to command the space between your ears long enough to sell you some product, these media channels must strive to outdo their past performances. They must try to come up with stories that are even more outrageous and shocking than the ones that shocked you last week and the week before. They have to work ever harder to capture the attention of a public that is desensitized from overexposure.

Spending much of my time indoors hunched over a computer or some other screen, it’s easy to get swallowed up in the negativity, to lose perspective and feel that the world is going to hell in a rapid descent.

Volume 68 ColinThe Tonic of Walking
When I become aware that I am starting to feel that I live in a dark, hopeless world, I know I have to get out. I have to get moving, to outrun that feeling. The movement is the remedy and it starts to kick in as soon as I pull myself up out of my chair and get myself outdoors.

Whether I am in the city or the country, the moment I cross that threshold to the outdoors I am transformed. The instant I leave the artificially controlled environment of the indoors and expose myself to the natural elements there is a profound change in my state of being. When I encounter the sun, sky, wind and the earth beneath my feet, I feel as if the fibers of my being have been realigned in synchronization with the natural world.

With what I am breathing in, seeing, hearing, smelling, and the physical interaction between my equilibrium and gravity, I am locking into the rhythms and forces of nature. Through my senses I am synching up with the world. And that induces a state of well-being for someone who is unknowingly suffering from a nature deficit from too much time at a computer or staring into a TV screen.

Those sensory impressions are like medicine. They are nourishing and necessary for a healthy organism. The benefit increases as I venture further abroad. Traveling to new places introduces a greater variety of new impressions and stimuli to feed the mind, body and spirit. Travel can take you anywhere within a vast world of possibilities, but it begins at the doorstep.

On its most basic level, travel is taking a walk. And ultimately that’s what travel is even at the most remote destinations. You may fly to distant corners of the world. But when you get there, it always comes back to taking a walk.

The Greatest Element
I try to remember when I am walking around my own neighborhood to be as alert to it and enthusiastically observant as I am when I am traveling in some dream-come-true destination. That helps me to appreciate the place where I am living and to never take one moment of it for granted. If we are really observant, every place is new every day. It is only a bad habit to believe there is nothing new to see and that therefore we shouldn’t even bother to look.

I turn to travel to help me refresh that feeling of appreciation for my home. When I spend a week or two wandering around in some spectacular exotic place, I bring that habit back home with me. It helps me see that my home is also a place full of enchantment. Periodical trips refresh that feeling of wonder that enriches my life during the periods between trips.

No matter how near or far this traversing goes, whether I’m in my home neighborhood or some distant place, the most important element that makes the biggest difference and has the greatest nurturing effect is the human factor, people I meet and the people I see.

Perhaps the greatest thing about these encounters with the ordinary people one encounters in the course of a day is the extent to which they are almost all really good people.

Hey, we all have our bad days, and bad encounters. But it’s actually astonishing to me when I am out in the world how decent most people are. I’m so used to hearing platitudes about how inherently selfish people are that it is almost shocking when I discover through my encounters with people on the streets of the world that people are in the main really nice.

You can certainly run into mean, cranky people. That’s going to happen. But when I get out there among people I’m reminded that the bad incident, the robber, the killer, the hit-and-run driver, etc., is the aberration.

The Figure and the Ground
Gestalt psychologists studying how humans see things came up with the concept of figure/ground perception, the process of mentally sorting out the figure you are looking at from its background. defines figure-ground as “a property of perception in which there is a tendency to see parts of a visual field as solid, well-defined objects standing out against a less distinct background.”

We see stories about the greediest, meanest people, desperate criminals, the most shocking behavior. But when I get out amongst real people on the street it confirms for me that the sordid characters that populate the news stories really are the exceptions.

The rule is the field upon which that aberration appears, the background, the millions of people everywhere in the world who are just trying to live decent lives and treat their neighbors, as well as strangers, with fairness, kindness and respect.

I have seen a variety of scientific studies that show that a basic human morality is universal and probably inborn. But even without scientific verification I know this to be true through my own personal experience.

At this point that experience is long and varied, and the preponderance of evidence is far too great to ever be overturned. There is a universal, inborn, instinctive human morality that forms the basis of civilization and the relations among all kinds of people no matter how separate their cultural and historical backgrounds.

We all come from the same source. All human beings share a large portion of what we are with all other human beings.

Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams spoke of “the kindness of strangers.” When I look back upon my life, I see that it was often the kindness of strangers that got me through. Without that human quality I think life would be an impoverished state. But the fact of that element of humanity, the kindness of strangers – and I see it as a fact – is one of the main reasons that life is not impoverished, but is a richly glorious, enchanted state.

Travel helps me to keep in touch with the fundamental goodness of people. Call me a fool if you want. In this matter I know what I am talking about.

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell



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