The distant past of our species occupies my mind at times. A friend of mine who is an archeologist tells me there was a thriving trade between the native peoples of this land, but I can well imagine there were tribes in some places who very seldom saw a stranger. Even in the most remote of regions, I can imagine there is knowledge of other people in other places, yet history is replete with this explorer, or invader, arriving on some distant shore to the great surprise, and perhaps eventually horror, of the native people.
The horse was likely the first medium which allowed for humans to go past their own boundaries and into those of other humans, and it must have been an odd sight to see a human and an animal together, traveling at a speed unimaginable, and unattainable. We tend to view a space shuttle flight with only a slight sense of awe, but for a walking race of people, the first sight of a horseback rider must have been nothing short of viewing manned flight for the first time.
The same can be said for the first time a sailing ship arrived on the shores of a village where the canoe was the very height of watercraft technology. Can you imagine someone trying to explain to you a sailing ship if all your life, and the lives of everyone you have ever known, were spend paddling a canoe around? A giant canoe holding a hundred people and much stuff moving quickly across the water via cloth that catches the wind? Seeing such a thing must have been just short of madness to some people.
My paternal grandmother was ten years old when she saw her first airplane. She had heard rumors of such a thing in the tiny little Texas town where she lived, but no one she knew had ever really seen man fly. It was something like unicorns, or werewolves, or Santa Claus. But one day word came down the telegraph wire there would an airplane flying close to their town, and everyone turned out to see it. Sure enough, the plane flew over, and my grandmother said some people screamed and ran away. The pilot waved as he flew by and it would have been no stranger had the dead walked, or if some local creek had parted. No one knew what would come of this, and no one did know for quite some time.
We have reached a stage in our cultural evolution where we have run out of strangers, yet even those closest to us are. Think about how many people you pass within mere inches of each day and never so much as make eye contact with them. Do you know the name of the person who made your breakfast this morning? If you used a drive through window to get food you may have never even seen the cook. The person who handled your transaction, would you know this person if you saw them walking down the street? When I was a child there were no strangers in my tiny town, and everyone waved at everyone else as they drove past. How many people did you pass on the road today and never thought about even so much as a friendly wave?
I was passing a semi truck on the Interstate today and the driver was tossing something out of the window. No, not like beer bottles or trash, but he was picking something up inside the truck with his thumb and forefinger of his left hand, and then releasing the substance, or things, or whatever, into the slipstream of his truck. He did this not just once or twice, but as if he had a whole mess of whatever he was tossing. Pot seeds, the husks of sunflower seeds, fleas, ticks, nuclear waste, dog hair, or maybe even some hallucinatory pixies that had invaded his cab, none of us will ever know what he was doing. Yet he is not a stranger. He and I are both Americans, we speak the same language, we eat the same foods, we live in the same country, we both have the same problems that all Americans have, and still, had I tried to stop him to engage in conversation very likely I would have either been killed or arrested.
Of course, he might not have been an American at all, you already thought about that, didn’t you? So here we have someone from Argentina, eating some local delicacy that requires the expulsion of the excess out into the wind, and perhaps if I knew this dish existed I would be wowed by it. I will never know this either. In fact, it is now possible for thousands of aliens to pass right by me, and I would never notice if they were from Suriname or Saturn. His truck could be loaded down with illegal farm workers, toothpaste, or a giant sea creature from Ellen Three and there is no way any of us will ever know, unless a monster gets released from a semi truck, then I suspect the hits on my blog might reach five a day.
The internet mirrors our lives in just this way. How many times has some deranged murderer stated his intention to kill online and no one noticed this until the bodies were piling up? But it’s not like you can do a search with the keywords “deranged” “murderer” and “soon” and discover when this will happen, any more than you can stop a truck and ask the drive if there is a monster in the back. We’ve become close strangers. I am friends with someone in Russian, another person in Germany, a couple in England, one in Ireland, a few in Australia, and all of this has led me to become accustomed to the idea there are no intellectual borders, yet I am no closer to intimacy with anyone for this.
While it is a good thing to lose our inhibitions with people of other cultures, we must somehow lose our fear of those people we see every day. We must see them as intellectual possibilities just as we see that in some stranger’s writings. We must be able to engage those we see just as we feel comfortable in engaging those we may never see.
And this comes from a Hermit.