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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soap Box – Stranger Danger

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At no time in history have we had so many people on the planet. We’ve all had to squeeze in to make a little more room for each other. The quarter-acre block has shrunk down to 400 square metres. The middle suburbs of cities such as Sydney that used to provide 4-bedroom family homes are now providing the same amenity but as units, stacking us like people in an architect-designed Tupperware set, one little family neatly perched on top of the other.

The world has never been so full of people. We’re living shoulder to shoulder, back to back, hip to hip, yet we’ve never been so removed from each other. The buzzword on the human front is connection. We yearn for connection. Yet we make so little effort to meet the people sitting next to us.

Why? Is it like romantic love where we only desire connection with a particular type of person? Do we secretly audit the rest of the human race for being ‘too different’? Too Muslim. Too Christian. Too Fat. Too Ugly. Too Beautiful. Too Smart. Too Dumb? It seems the more of us there are the more disconnected we become.

How ironic – the closer we become physically, the more likely it is for our stranger legs to touch on the bus, the more frightened we become! The more we retreat into our social cocoon where we pretend the other person isn’t actually there. The iPhone, the tool that purports to ‘connect’ us with our communities, to keep us up to date on everything in the world, to make us kings and queens of the virtual world, is also the very tool that allows us to isolate and shut out the real visceral world.

Next time you are on a bus or a tram or a train have a look around. How many people are on their phones? Listening to music, texting, talking, checking in on Facebook, updating Instagram posts? Every single person in rapturous connection with their technology. Not a single person in simple communication with each other.

Is it a coincidence that anxiety also seems to be on the increase? Is anxiety trying to buffer our entry into an overpopulated world by keeping us at home, or sending us out into the fray shut down, suspicious and frightened? Terrorism seems like a natural consequence in a world completely terrified of itself. I can’t stop terrorism. But I can work on my own personal terror.

So I started the Mandy Nolan Talking to a Stranger project. (Or should that be called Mandy Nolan terrorising a stranger project?) Last time I flew down to Melbourne I decided I would try talking to strangers on every given opportunity. I started at the airport. Fortunately I was flying Jetstar so my flight was delayed over two hours; I got a headstart on my mission. I met a woman who had lived with vertigo for 20 years. She was travelling with her carer, who shadowed her every move – even her visits to the toilet. She joked that she hoped people thought they were passionate lesbian lovers who could not bear to be parted, rather than a 64-year-old woman with a disability. I told her my husband had been working with someone who had great success with vertigo; I gave her his card and hoped she would phone.

Next I met an elderly Polish gentleman who had lost his entire family in a concentration camp. He himself had only just survived. In fact he said, ‘I wouldn’t have made another week’. He was probably the best looking nonagenarian that I’ve ever met. Such a beatific smile. I wondered how you could survive that kind of atrocity and still radiate such joy. He’d moved to Melbourne (as a refugee, mind you) and did what refugees do best – work. He’d made his millions in timber. Not bad for someone who as a young adult had weighed 42 kilos.

Then there was the woman on the bus. I don’t think she spoke English. I think she thought I was nuts so she got off but the next woman who sat beside me was an Italian nonna and I think she’d been playing the ‘talking to strangers game’ longer than I had. I know a lot of things about her grandchildren now.

I did this all weekend. I was meeting all these people who were so willing to disclose their amazing stories to me; all I had to do was ask the question. My Indian Über driver sealed the deal. He told me that he never felt sad or angry and that was because he meditated every day. He said even when his teenagers did stuff he should be angry about he couldn’t even raise the smallest amount of steam. He told me how to do it. Ten minutes a day, he said, was all I needed and I too could be a nice person like him.

He was like the Über guru. Other people pay a fortune for advice like that. I only paid $23.50. I even went home and bought a cushion. Of course I haven’t meditated on it yet. But I’m certainly thinking about it. I guess that is the danger of strangers… they’re not actually that strange at all. They’re a lot like you. Even the ones who aren’t.

If ideas like this interest you, please come to Courage to Care – Putting Hope into Action – a conversation about community, and connection as the basis of transforming our lives (and the world). It’s a fundraiser for the More than a Meal project for the Mullum Neighbourhood Centre. Saturday at the Mullum Ex-Services with me as the host and featuring inspirational binge thinkers and doers such as Alan Clements, Helena Norberg-Hodge and Mark Swivel. 8pm. $10.


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