I sat in an airport lounge in Mexico City; feeling the caffeine run through my veins from my lukewarm Americano and filling my stomach up with an assortment of free snacks.
I was deeply engrossed in Viktor Frankl’s A Man’s Search For Meaning when a stout, middle-aged man asked if the seat next to me was taken. I let him know it was free, and he sat down.
A conversation quickly ensued about the work both him, and I did. He was a papaya farmer in the Jalisco region, and he explained to me the volatility of crops. When he heard I wrote about psychology, he was surprisingly keen to talk about the subject.
Quickly, the conversation turned to the mental and spiritual work he did on himself after a 3-inch tumor was removed from his brain. As he began his story, the man pushed his bangs over to reveal a scar that ran across the side of his forehead. The doctors told him that recovery and gaining his motor skills back would take years at least.
Uninterested in not being able to walk or function normally for years, he attempted to accelerate his healing through a clean diet, meditation and working on his pre-existing anger issues. He explained to me how the area of his brain that was operated on affected his emotions, exacerbating how quickly he could be enraged.
We delve into whether people are innately angry, where the anger stems from, and how spirituality heals people. I inquired about what he thought worked best, he inquired the psychological reasons behind why it worked for him. After about an hour, his flight was called. He handed me his business card so we could stay in touch, and off he went to catch his flight to Texas.
I sat there, thoughts racing through my head about everything we talked about, feeling full. Not from the cashews I had been stuffing in my mouth, but from the conversation that complete stranger and I just had. I felt the kind of full you feel after you experienced something with meaning; something with substance.
Though I only talked to this man for an hour, he left an impression on me. A story and an understanding that I wouldn’t have been gifted elsewhere.
I used to be petrified to talk to random people in public. I’d be so scared to speak up, I’d even have my mom ask the waiter for ketchup at a restaurant. It’s kind of hard to place my finger on exactly what I was scared of. Perhaps it was being perceived as annoying, maybe it was actually being scared of people.
But at some point, or perhaps slowly and steadily, that changed. And I am happy it did.
In this world, we’re pretty limited to our little bubble of what we experience and therefore learn. Sure, there’s school, but life experiences and understanding the world around us isn’t found in a textbook or a lecture.
We gain perspective and nuanced knowledge through the people we meet and the situations we find ourselves in. And for many of us, those experiences and people kind of all look the same.
But when you open up to talking to strangers, we’re opening new doors to meeting people we wouldn’t normally interact with. We’re allowing for situations to occur that usually wouldn’t happen in our everyday lives.
Not only that, but we’re exercising our communications skills which, in turn, flexes our confidence muscle. If the case is that I was scared of being perceived in the wrong way or simply afraid of people, repetition was my only antidote. Practice does indeed make perfect, and the more strangers I talked to, the more comfortable I became with it.
Because the girl that couldn’t even ask for a bottle of ketchup is now a writer and host of a podcast. Platforms in which I bare my soul, ironically, to a bunch of strangers. I do think it takes a certain kind of person to do this kind of work.
And I wouldn’t have gotten to this place if it wasn’t for the encounters with people I didn’t know. If it isn’t for me making the decision to speak those first words to the random person sitting next to me. If I wasn’t opening to having my perspective shifted, even just the slightest.
But the best part of it all is the perfect strangers I now call friends. From the Canadian woman I complimented the shirt of in China, to the MIT student that described to me how he literally flips burgers, via the robots he programs. From the flower farmer I met in Ecuador to the queer writer I sat next to on a flight to Paris.
And most of all, the papaya farmer I met in a Mexico City airport lounge.
All complete strangers with stories and ideas waiting to be shared. An opportunity that, had I simply smiled and put my headphones in, would’ve passed right by me like the rest of life.