Once, I spoke on the phone with a friend of a friend who works in the public relations industry and was giving me career advice. I was lamenting on my lack of specific direction when she asked me, “How would you spend your ideal day?” I thought about this. “For me,” she said, “I would be in a hammock reading Vogue on the beach all day if I could.”
“I would sit all day in a coffee shop, just chatting with whoever came and sat down next to me,” I told her.
I’ve written before about my love for strangers. Talking to people as though I’ve known them my whole life is what I do best, and what I enjoy most. So naturally, earlier this week when I traveled to Chicago for a job interview, I found myself doing lots of what I just mentioned: making new friends.
On the plane from Gainesville to Atlanta, I met a man who has been researching malaria for more than 30 years. His work takes him away from his family frequently, but he knows it’s worth it for the value of the discoveries he’s taking part in. From Atlanta to Chicago, I sat next to a guy who went to Virginia Tech and studied theatre. He is now an experimental actor in Chicago who had just left the funeral of his 23-year-old brother’s girlfriend (who committed suicide in the apartment they shared).
At the airport waiting to fly from Chicago to Charlotte, I struck up a conversation with a man who lives and works in Wisconsin in economic development for the state of Victoria, Australia. He grew up in Australia but moved to the United States 20 years ago after falling in love with an American girl studying abroad at his university. “You must have really liked her to move across the world,” I said to him. He explained to me that there wasn’t a place far enough away for him not to follow her. “I knew she was it,” he said. “And when you know that, you owe it to yourself to relentlessly pursue that person.”
In that same airport, I met the VP of Marketing for the largest independent bottler of Coca Cola in the country. He was full of professional and interview advice. One of the greatest things, though, was when he stopped talking about work and started absolutely glowing about his daughter. It was clear that she is the sunshine of his life and it was so refreshing to hear a dad be so genuinely proud of his little girl.
On my airplane ride to Charlotte, I had every intention of taking a nap…specifically, a window seat-leaning, mouth possibly open, two-hour nap. But after Rebecca started talking to me, I knew that wasn’t in the cards.
I heard about her husband, a former Army Special Forces officer who works in North Carolina now as she works in Wisconsin. I heard about their commitment for making their marriage work after all these years in spite of deployments and distance constantly getting in the way. I heard about her grandkids, and Disney plans, and then I heard about how she tragically lost one of her best friends in an accident last week. Tears were in both of our eyes as we tried together to make sense of such a senseless tragedy.
I spent my final flight from Charlotte to Gainesville trying to nap but struggling to do so. Just two days earlier, I’d been feeling crappy about relationship issues and personal problems (and to be honest, I still feel pretty crappy about those things). In that short time though, I’d been exposed to countless people who’d given me perspective on life, work, family travel and love…all things I could use a lot more perspective on.
Even more intensely, I was met with the realization that the quote we hear so often (frequently attributed to Plato) is unbelievably true. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I’ve encouraged this before and I will again: take a moment today, or tomorrow, or the next day to talk to–really talk to–a stranger. You never know who might be in need of some kind words, and I can guarantee that you’ll learn something too. I learned this week that love knows no distance, family is a gift and life is short. I have heard all of these things before, but had I not spoken with these total strangers this week, I wouldn’t have actively seen just how true they are.