The Small Habit That Could Save the World
By David Cain / raptitude.com
May 31, 2015

Most of us were taught as children never to talk to strangers. At face value this is bad life advice — we can never know people we never talk to. But we know it’s only meant to arm children with a basic skepticism about unknown people, so that they’re less likely to accept a ride from that rare person who really is dangerous.

It’s a crude but effective policy, something like how Wal-Mart used to pay “greeters” to stand near the entrance and tape shut any bags you’re carrying; they wanted to prevent shoplifting, so they simply treated all their customers like thieves.

Unfortunately, the word “stranger” isn’t used only between teachers and schoolchildren, it’s our normal word for referring to the overwhelming proportion of the population whom we don’t know anything about. It implies that our default view of everyday passers-by should be at least a little bit suspicious. We need a bit of evidence that they are worthy of our respect — let alone our love or caring — before we give it. We assume no obligation to feel anything for them, or to care how their lives are going.

A minority of the time, I’ll be out in public and that air of indifference won’t be there. Instead, I’ll feel an indiscriminate warmth towards my fellow citizens. There is a certain appreciation, even love, for everyone I see, without any of them showing a similar appreciation for me. Often this happens just after seeing a poignant film, or receiving some good news, or having some other experience that has temporarily dissolved that sense of unknown people being irrelevant.

It’s almost a custom in our society, to dismiss by default the idea of actually caring for people we don’t know, at least before we’ve been given a reason. Our comedy is built on this casual disdain for the other guy. We share anecdotes about “idiots” we ran into earlier. Sartre says “Hell is other people” and we nod knowingly, fully misunderstanding what he meant.

With people we already know, we can easily forgive mistakes. Strangers, however, enter our lives already under suspicion. We disqualify entire human beings from the possibility of our respect or forgiveness the moment they fail to use a turn signal, or wear a baseball cap in the wrong kind of eating establishment.

To quote humorist Jack Handey: “A man doesn’t automatically get my respect. He has to get down in the dirt and beg for it.”

In our culture, the default is to treat strangers with indifference at best. It isn’t normal, for example, to spend a moment quietly wishing your fellow bus passengers a good day at work or school. When we find ourselves in a grocery store aisle with some other human beings, we’re more likely to be annoyed by them than we are to sympathize with them. 

I think we should reconsider our default attitude towards strangers. Treating an unknown person with suspicion or indifference is an act much more crude, thoughtless, and detrimental to society than parking too close to the white line, taking too long to order at Subway, or any of the other petty reasons for which we disqualify people from the possibility of our caring about them.

Nobody goes first

If you’ve experienced this “love as a default” state, it may have been only a happy accident — the glow that comes in the wake of good luck or inspiration, to be enjoyed while it lasts. But you can do it on purpose. You can decide to be loving and respectful, as a rule, to people you encounter, not because of anything they did to deserve it, but because it simply makes for a better custom than indifference does. It creates a far better personal experience for you, and undoubtedly a far better society.

I explained one way of doing this a few months ago, in an article about becoming a stranger’s secret ally. Whenever you notice yourself feeling annoyed by a stranger, decide to forgive the apparent offense, and, for the few minutes you’re in each others presence, commit to helping them if they need help. Be prepared to offer directions if they look lost, intervene if someone’s treating them unfairly, or at the very least, hope that the rest of their day goes well for them. This intention to forgive and then help — even though you will probably never need to act on it — undermines any habitual pettiness that’s present, and allows the possibility of genuine goodwill.

It’s not that we’re unable to care for strangers when we try, it’s that we don’t try, and in fact it’s taboo in our culture. We are suspicious of people who advocate loving or caring for no reason. We think of them as hippies or New-Agers, or at least hopeless idealists. The message is that love and goodwill are things to dole out stingily, for those who have proved deserving. In our culture, being indiscriminate with your love is an embarrassment.

I think this is just a cultural wrong turn, not an inevitable byproduct of modern society. We have a “You go first” idea of love. Of course, when it comes to strangers, nobody goes first. In going first, there is a fear that you will love and not be loved back, and so our profit-minded society sees it as a foolish investment.

Some psychologists suggest that our stinginess with love is a result of how we first learn about it. We begin life experiencing love only as something that is given to us. As babies our experience of love is totally one-way, always pointed towards ourselves, if anywhere.

So we begin with a total fixation on being loved, rather than seeing loving as a skill or a disposition that we could cultivate ourselves. It occurs to us only later that love can be experienced from a completely different direction, by being its giver.

As we explore this end of love, we can, but don’t always, develop a more mature view of it. We discover that we can give love too, so we learn to reciprocate: love given for love received.

But a fully mature view of love goes further, to the point where we can love without knowing whether we’ll be loved back. This is the way parents love (or should love) their children. On this end of the spectrum, love is an offering, not a bargain. Reciprocation isn’t a requirement, or even an expectation; there’s no concern about how much love is “deserved.”

The world changes tones completely when we actively view strangers this way — when we refuse to be indifferent, viewing them instead with love as a default attitude. It changes your experience of everything involving strangers: traffic, concerts, business transactions, restaurants, walks down the street, and even someone’s bad taste in clothes or lawn ornaments. The simple desire for others to have lives they enjoy sweeps away most of our everyday habitual pettiness, and leaves us feeling strangelyokay with the human world as a whole.

Indifference towards strangers is conditioned into us though, and so love won’t usually be your first inclination. But it doesn’t have to be. That initial feeling of indifference, or otherness, can serve as cue to remind you to offer love instead of nothing. All you have to do is think about what the stranger next to you might be hoping for, and see if you can quietly share that hope.

That small habit is all it would take to transform the world. Even if you agree, you might still find yourself waiting for others to do it first.

4.2 ·
2
Trending Today
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 11,888 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 11,148 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
What Is My Activism Really About? to Love, Serve and Remember
Tim Hjersted · 4,199 views today · I have made a promise to this world that I will carry with me to my last days. It is my vow to lessen the suffering of the world while I am here - it is to ensure that every...
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 3,955 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 2,589 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Bracing for Trump's Anti-Worker, Corporate Agenda
Colin Jenkins · 2,302 views today · Rich people don’t have to have a life-and-death relationship with the truth and its questions; they can ignore the truth and still thrive materially. I am not surprised many...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,139 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 1,355 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Thoughts on the Eve of the Trump Regime
Mark Corske · 1,239 views today · A blend of dread, disgust, rage, and despair for the future, all in a state of shocked disbelief—if you feel something like this facing the Trump regime’s ascent to power...
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 978 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
Looking Forward to the Day That Nationalism Is as Reviled as Racism
Tim Hjersted · 906 views today · Nationalism is a form of geographical racism that makes some lives matter more than others, and explicitly justifies that logic without apology. While today, not even lying...
The Myth of Romantic Love May Be Ruining Your Health
Susanne Vosmer · 884 views today · Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two yearning halves, who search for each other to find their complete, original state. Few find...
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 827 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 710 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 629 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 509 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 508 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 449 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
10 Female Revolutionaries That You Probably Didn't Learn About In History class
Kathleen Harris · 375 views today · We all know male revolutionaries like Che Guevara, but history often tends to gloss over the contributions of female revolutionaries that have sacrificed their time, efforts...
Supporters 'Ecstatic' After Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning's Sentence
Nika Knight · 294 views today · Whistleblower to be released from military prison in May
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
The Small Habit That Could Save the World