"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?" says Walt Whitman.
This would be love's way. But convention steps in and says, "No, you must not speak to strangers," and we obey.
Time and time, again, when I meet our soldiers and sailors on the street, my first impulse is to offer them my hand and express my gratitude for the great debt which I personally owe them. I know that these boys are giving up their vocation, their chosen career, their home, those dearer to them than life, to fight for me, and it seems coldblooded to pass them without any sign of recognition. But the iron habit of convention too often strangles my natural impulse, and I pass them by without a word or sign of recognition, or of my feeling toward them. I never do so, however, without a deep regret for not speaking, or at least giving them a smile, an acknowledgment of my appreciation of what they are doing for us all.
This apparent indifference is one reason why a great city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, to a stranger, especially one from a foreign country, is about the lonesomest place a human being could be in. To pass thousands of faces day after day, without a friendly look from anyone, without a word of greeting, without even a smile or a glance of recognition, is most disheartening. It seems cruel, brutal, uncivilized, yet it does not proceed from unkindness, or because people don't want to be friendly - it is just the custom.
But why should we. of the twentieth century perpetuate such a custom? Why should strangers stare so coldly at one another when a simple smile and pleasant recognition would be so pleasant? These people we call strangers are really our brothers and sisters, for the human family are all children of one Father. We have not had an opportunity to know the so-called strangers simply because our family is so vast.
There is something inhuman, unnatural, in the idea that we cannot speak to anyone until we have been formally introduced. Meeting strangers ought to be something like a brother or a sister going back to the old home after many years of absence and finding new brothers and sisters who were not there when they went away. Many of the people we don't know in the conventional way may be more akin to us in tastes and ideals than some of the members of our own family. I very often meet people whose faces tell me that they are not only brothers and sisters because we belong to the same great human family, but because we are sympathetically related - related by our mental affinity. My heart goes out to them spontaneously. I long to stop and tell them that I want to know them. Something in their faces attracts me. I can read there a history which interests me wonderfully. I know there is something there for me, and if so there must be something in me which would interest and perhaps help them. They not only have a kindly expression, but they often look as though they knew what I was thinking and really felt sorry that custom forbade our speaking to each other.
Some will object that the custom of speaking to strangers, regardless of whether we know anything about them, would lead to all sorts of unfortunate results, especially for girls. And I answer that it does not do so where it is practised in the South; and it would not do so in large cities if it were made the general custom. A pleasant recognition, a smile or a friendly greeting, does not, of course, mean that we go off with strangers, or that girls would allow themselves to be led astray by strange men.
During my first visit to a Southern town, after living in New York many years, I was much pleased and surprised at the cordiality of people, even to strangers on the street. The first time I passed through the streets, many people whom I had never seen before bowed politely to me, and the colored men would raise their hats. The whole atmosphere of cordiality, of friendliness, was such a contrast to the cold atmosphere of New York that it made a lasting impression on me. Ever since I have really thought I would like to live in this little Southern city - Staunton, Va.
The American and English people particularly are cold and stony when coming in contact with strangers. I have sat down at a table in a hotel or restaurant opposite English-speaking people who made me feel that I was intruding. They seemed to wish that I would get out of their way, that it was a piece of impudence on my part to sit down at the same table with them.
On the other hand, when traveling in some Continental countries, especially in France, if we enter a restaurant and sit down, those sitting opposite us at the table, or perhaps at tables nearby, smile politely and thus make us feel at home. Some of the brightest experiences of my life have come from traveling in strange lands and meeting strangers who could not even speak my language, but who would give me such a friendly greeting in their facial expression as to make me feel that we were real friends.
How different it is in our country! New York men tell me that they have passed men nearly every day for years, without ever speak ing to them or showing any sign whatever of recognition. This doesn't seem human. If we are brothers and sisters to the strangers we meet on the street why should we pass them with a cold stare? It seems that we could at least give them a smile, at least show them that we recognize the relationship of our human brotherhood.
Elbert Hubbard says that "the world has always been run on a short allowance of love." Yet, if we will, we can give it in unlimited quantity; and just in the same measure that we give will it come back to us. Even if we don't speak to strangers we can look at them in a way that will make them realize our kinship. And we never can tell how much good a friendly look, or a cheery smile will do. I know an old lady who has such a sweet benign expression, a half smile on her face which seems to say "I would like to speak to you if I only knew you," that the elevator boys, the conductors on the cars, the newsboys, the clerks - everybody who comes in contact with her feels that he has received a real benediction for the rest of the day.
We are all debtors on occasion to perfect strangers for some silent message of sympathy which helped us on our way - smiles, encouraging appreciative looks, kindly acts, a radiation of love that made us conscious of their sympathy and kinship. I meet one of these kindly strangers almost every day in the streets of New York, a man who reflects so much love and good cheer in his face, that, although he doesn't speak, he makes me feel that he would like to, that only custom, not inclination, keeps him from doing so.
Dickens says "no one is useless in the world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else." The man or woman who has a kindly feeling for everyone is a universal helper. Most of us very much overestimate the possibilities of money to help. What people want most of all is sympathy, the touch of brotherhood. This is what inspires, encourages, uplifts. It fills a need that money cannot touch. A church investigator tells how fully he realized this when calling on a poor old soul whom he found on a pallet of straw in an attic. When he asked her what she needed most he thought she would say "Bread, coal, covering," for she lacked all of these. But no, her answer was "Folks. Someone to talk to me. I am lonely!"
How many lonely souls there are longing for sympathy, the solace of human companionship, which no material things can supply! Everywhere we see people starving for love, famishing for affection, for someone to appreciate them. We see men and women possessing material comfort, luxury, all that can contribute to their physical well-being - they are able to gratify almost any wish - and yet they are hungry for love. They seem to have plenty of everything but affection.
There are rich women who would give all their wealth for the love of a good, clean man, or of a little child. And there are millionaires whose lives are barren because there is no love in them. Everywhere we see the love-starved expression in the faces of all sorts and conditions of people. Many of them are rich in lands and houses, automobiles, yachts, horses, money - in everything but love!
Children should be reared to think that we are all related one to another, that human beings are the same family, because they have the same Father-Mother-God, and that because they do not happen to have been introduced to each other is no reason why they should not speak.
When we do this, men and women will not, as they do now, coldly pass people by who look as though they were really longing for friendship, famishing for sympathy, for love which many would gladly give them if there were no social ban upon recognizing or speaking to strangers.
There is a fruitful suggestion for helping others, no matter how poor we may be, in the thought that the spirit of kindness, of goodwill, is a great radiating force that reaches out to other souls and gives them strength and uplift, though we may not even speak to them.
"Certainly in our own little sphere it is not the most active people to whom we owe the most," says Phillips Brooks. "Among the common people whom we know it is not necessarily those who are busiest, not those who, meteorlike, are ever on the rush after some visible charge and work. It is the lives, like the stars which simply pour down on us the calm light of their bright and faithful being, up to which we look and out of which we gather the deepest calm and courage. It seems to me that there is reassurance here for many of us who seem to have no chance for active usefulness. We can do nothing for our fellow-men. But still it is good to know that we can be something for them; to know (and this we may know surely) that no man or woman of the humblest sort can really be strong, gentle, pure, and good, without the world's being better for it; without somebody being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness."
The loving thought, the good will attitude toward all reacts on ourselves. It is a great friend maker. If we cultivate a cheerful, cordial manner toward everybody, we make acquaintances and friends easily.
I know a woman who is a dwarf and a cripple, but who has such a sweet, open, beautiful nature that everybody loves her. She is welcome everywhere, because she is interested in everyone. She is poor, but she enters into other lives with a heartiness, an unselfish abandonment and enthusiasm that ought to shame those of us who are physically normal and in better circumstances.
There is no one so poor or so helpless that he cannot hold a helpful and encouraging mental attitude toward others, who cannot give of his sympathy to the lonely soul who is hungering for human companionship. We can all cherish the aspiration of George Eliot, and say with her:
"May I reach That purest heaven, be to other souls The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible Whose music is the gladness of the world."