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The Blessing (and Curse) of Being a Stranger

by | Apr 9, 2014 | Change Leadership | 3 comments

This is part of my Listening in Lent series in which I reflect on my experience of practicing listening during this holy season.

Six months ago, I crammed my Subaru Forrester with things (I consider) essential — clothes, shoes, yoga mat, spices, kitchen knives, vinegars (there are many), jewelry, snacks for the road and two bikes strapped to the back.

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The Subaru packed to make the trip from Iowa to Michigan last fall. Photo by Nicole Havelka.

Once again, I was a stranger. For someone who grew up mostly in one house up to the age of 18, I have moved a lot as an adult. If you count all the dorm moves in college, this is my 21st move in the past 22 years.

When I went away to college, I couldn’t have been happier to be a stranger. I was ecstatic to start afresh in a place where no one knew me, where no one had any expectations of me and who I was. I was going to become the person I wanted to become. At age 18, surrounded by a gaggle of other  young adults doing the exact same thing, the task was relatively easy.

Moving and becoming a stranger yet again loses some of its luster in your 40s. My personality and ways of moving in the world are more solidified. I have created a large web of friends and family, who support and challenge me. I do work that I love and consider a calling. I have amassed all the stuff of an adult life.  (It no longer fits in one car load, like it did in college.) I still love new people, new places and new adventures. But, it can still be utterly exhausting and, quite frankly, incredibly lonely as you make these transitions. I am very cognizant that yet again I would have to start over, to make new friends, discover new favorite hangouts, make roots in a new yoga studio and church, find new doctors and have new … well … everything.

Being a stranger can easily be considered a spiritual practice. Being in unfamiliar places helps you to listen in ways that you don’t when you’re in your comfortable space. You have to observe intently the patterns of behavior in the people around you. You have to read street signs and rely on maps, not just drive to the grocery store on “autopilot”. You have to ask people a lot of questions because you just don’t understand what’s happening. You often feel foolish or even stupid.

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A little wandering in the wilderness.

When I make my way through these moves, these wilderness experiences, I can’t help but think that this is why the Bible has so many commands related to welcoming the stranger, the alien —  “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23: 9, NRSV)

Like the Hebrews, who knew 40 years of wandering in the desert outside of Egypt, having been a stranger in strange lands so many time, makes me a better host. I’m sensitive to how I welcome people to my home, to church or to a meeting. I try not to assume everyone is “in the know.” I attempt to explain what they should expect or how to get around. I try to avoid language or jokes that only the insiders understand.

Being a stranger is very hard; but being the host is also difficult. It not only requires a lot of forethought, it requires us to be attuned to the uncomfortable feelings of loneliness and cluelessness that comes with being a stranger entering a new place for the first time. As a spiritual discipline, I encourage you to practice being a stranger — take a class in something you’ve never done before; go to a new place, even if it’s just in the town you’re in; try a new food that is unfamiliar. Forcing yourself to do simple, unfamiliar things will create empathy in you for the stranger. You also never know when you’re going to be the stranger again.

3 Comments

  1. revmmg

    I am an intentional interim minister. One of the prime experiences of the job is to enter into a new community as a stranger. The difference is that, knowing it will be a limited time position, it is difficult to look for relationships, friendships in particular. Thank you for your reflections. I found them helpful.

    Reply
  2. dman0628

    Thank you Nicole, this is definately something to think about. I am going to be making a cross country trip a month from now. Do I have your permission to use your blog post in our Thursday night meetings at Extravegence UCC?

    Reply

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