The best moments in school are in the spaces. The fist pumps in the corridor, the brief exchanges of words, the conversations in break and lunch duty. Students whom I do not teach, whose names are sometimes unknown to me will come and talk. Sometimes there are complaints, mostly it is about the stuff of daily life. Perhaps it is because I am a stranger. I think being a stranger is important to caring for people.
The most difficult people to whom to talk are often the people nearest to you. There will be times when something should be said, something that should be discussed, something that should be resolved, but it is the last thing anyone is going to mention. We play along, perhaps thinking that the problem will go away if we ignore it.
Families often do this when a member is seriously ill. The family know their loved one is seriously ill; the loved one knows the illness is serious; but no-one will say what is on their mind. Being someone caught in the middle of these conspiracies of silence was not easy; when people expected you to speak the truth it was hard to know what to say.
Most people find it easier to talk to a complete stranger about their thoughts. We feel that if we talk to someone close to us, then what we say will come between us, they will think less of us, or they will hold it against us, or they will be hurt, or they will not trust us as much. If we talk to a stranger, then there is not the same danger. It doesn’t matter what they think.
One of the reasons for the effectiveness of the Samaritans is that they are anonymous. People can talk to them without feeling threatened. There is space, an opportunity, to talk about the most difficult things, in the knowledge that it is all heard in complete confidence.
Just as it’s easier not to talk to people close to you, so it’s easier to cope with the problems of people who are distant from you, who are distant from the people and the things you hold dear.
I ministered for seven years in a very rural parish in the Northern Ireland. They were very traditional country people and, while they held the clergy in the greatest respect, there was also an arm’s-length relationship with whoever was the Rector. I was addressed as “Mr Poulton” by virtually everyone, including people older than my grandparents. It was all a bit disconcerting at first, I was only 28 when I went there and wasn’t used to being called “Mister”. What this distance did create was space that allowed them to share their thoughts and their worries.
We don’t ask difficult questions of the people around us. We talk about what we need from the shops, or whether football or Coronation Street should be on television, or what the traffic was like in town, or 101 other pressing concerns. We don’t ask the difficult things of people near us, nor do we expect to be asked difficult questions.
Being a stranger, being someone passing through, makes space for conversations.