The Kindness of Strangers

Jalaja - Ithaca, New York
Entered on January 13, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
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As a child, I lived on two continents, in three countries, in many different cities.

Once I was old enough to travel, I did so a lot, often alone, and often to places where I did not speak the language. Single females are vulnerable, and I was frequently molested, and once, attacked. Yet the uncomfortable or scary moments pale into insignificance next to the countless times I experienced the overwhelming generosity of strangers.

In Greece, I was fed, helped, healed and housed dozens of times by warm-hearted villagers whom I’d never met before. In India, the poorest people fed me and showered me with gifts. Total strangers took me into their homes and hosted me, not just for days but for months, and with unfailing graciousness. In Israel, Arab families welcomed me into their homes, where they offered me sweet, cardamom-spiced coffee and Arab sweets.

Today, my job is to bring groups of people together who think they’re strangers, and help them discover that they’re really friends who just didn’t know it. I couldn’t do this, if I myself didn’t believe in the kindness of strangers. But I do, because I’ve spent much of my life being one. When you’re a stranger amongst strangers, you depend on their kindness.

Sometimes, even the smallest gesture of kindness can make an enormous difference. Recently, I was driving with a friend through rush-hour Tel-Aviv. We had no map, we were trying to find a tiny, obscure hotel, traffic was insane, and Tel-Aviv is a huge city with complicated traffic patterns. Inevitably, we got horribly lost. We’d ask someone for directions and get lost, ask directions again only to find ourselves lost again, over and over.

After about an hour of this, we pulled over to ask for directions one more time. This time, our victim was an elderly, kind-looking man. Did he speak English? I asked. He did. “We’re lost,” I then told him.

He must have heard the tone of terminal frustration in my voice. Very gently, he leaned into our car and said with a warm smile, “No, no, don’t worry, you’re not lost at all. You’re only taking a little detour. Welcome to Tel-Aviv! It’s a really friendly city, you know!”

In that moment, all my anxiety dissolved completely. Suddenly, I felt like I had a friend in this city. Our friendship can’t have lasted more than two minutes. I never learned his name, and will almost certainly never see him again. And yet, the warmth and kindness of his words put me at ease and touched my heart.

To him, and to all the strangers around the world who have treated me with kindness, I want to say thank you. Knowing the kindness of strangers has given me hope for the world.