Writing to Strangers

I get a lot of fundraising emails from local teenagers who want to go on summer mission trips. The letters sound almost exactly the same, because the teens tend to use the same sample letter provided by the ministers.

But this year one letter was different. It began something like this: “My name is Joey. In case you don’t know me, I am 5’10” tall and weigh 135 pounds. I am a Hispanic male, with brown eyes and brown hair.”

I gave Joey extra money. (And, enchanted, I kept passing his letter around to family members until it vanished, which is why I can’t quote it exactly.) Later, I told his stepmother how much I loved Joey’s letter, and she laughed. “I almost told him to change that,” she said. “It didn’t seem professional.”

I was glad she hadn’t. Yes, the opening was quirky, childlike in its complete disregard for the accepted protocols of letter writing. But throughout the letter I could hear an authentic voice. Joey had put time and effort into writing that letter; he had risked doing it without a script. He’d risked putting himself out there. And so it felt like a real, heart-felt communication from a particular boy with a specific need.

Packaged People

Now, don’t go thinking you can use Joey’s trick. It worked for him because it wasn’t a trick, but rather a genuine attempt by a teenager to imagine what people might want to know about him. It wasn’t a “method.”

So many of the interactions in our lives aren’t genuine communication from one human being to another. Senders are filtered, airbrushed, and packaged for marketing (if they’re even human at all).

The recipients are objectified and commodified. We are “consumers” or “voters” or “parents” or particles in some other general block, funneled neatly into categories and sub-categories, never reaching individuality.

But real people never fit perfectly into categories; real people aren’t algorithms. We are each of us unique, whimsical, unrepeatable. As Mr. Rogers liked to say, “There is only one like you in the whole world. You are special.”


Mostly we don’t feel special. We feel like numbers, or interchangeable placeholders, or potential assets. We’re flesh-and-blood human beings in an increasingly impersonal, isolated, stage-managed culture, and we’re lonely. We wear masks, both literal and metaphorical. We keep our distance.

For the problem isn’t restricted to online and mail. Our “in real life” connections also are increasingly inhuman and impersonal. It’s perfectly possible to run errands in person and never speak to another human. There’s an ATM for your banking, self-checkout at the grocery store, a machine dispensing stamps at the post office. Passersby rarely make eye contact, because they’re too busy looking at phones or listening to something through ear buds.

In our days, the points of human contact are diminishing. Whereas once we had ever-expanding circles of people in our lives—the small core circle of family and close friends; the slightly larger circle of general friends; then acquaintances (people you see regularly but don’t actually know); then strangers—now those outer edges are crumbling. Nowadays strangers rarely speak to one another; fewer and fewer acquaintances do.

And we feel their lack. We not only need those small touches, but we intuitively know (even if we haven’t articulated it) that if the outer circle crumbles, eventually the inner could as well. Friends don’t spring into existence fully formed. Strangers become acquaintances, who often become friends, who become close friends. Without real interactions with strangers, we lose potential friends.

Restoring Human Connections

But we can push back. We can restore those outer edges of human connection, and in doing so make the world a warmer and less lonely place, not only for ourselves but for others.

In a fun article at The Free Press, Olivia Reingold describes some of the letters and emails she’s written to complete strangers, and the responses she’s received. Once, for instance, after re-reading an article she particularly loved, Reingold emailed the author, 91-year-old Gay Talese:

“People don’t write like that anymore,” I typed. “I don’t write like that—but I want to.”

The next day he called me....

“I know this is sudden,” he said. “Would you like to come over this afternoon to talk about writing?”

He told me to jot down the address to his Upper East Side brownstone and meet him there in about three hours.

As I sat there, stunned, I reminded myself: this is why you cold-email your heroes. Because sometimes, and more often than not, they respond.

Reingold continues:

For as long as I’ve been literate, I’ve been writing to strangers. Sometimes it’s to people I admire; other times it’s to someone who has something I want. That was the case in first grade, when I penned a note to a woman in my neighborhood, asking if I could see her backyard, because I passed her property every day on the way to school, and always wondered—what was that red thing in her woods?

Turns out it was a pagoda. I know this because a week after I placed my letter in her mailbox, she invited me into her home.

People need genuine human connection, even the introverts among us—perhaps especially the introverts among us.

We like for people to be interested in us, or in our writing, or our pagodas. And we like to be able to respond—to give time or advice, money or meals or any number of things—if we can do so in a way that feels like a personal interaction rather than a soul-less transaction. We like to be needed. We like to have something to offer.

Of course, some people aren’t writers, and some situations don’t lend themselves to the written word. But there are other ways to reach out, to rebuild that outer circle.

My father, a quiet and introverted man, has nevertheless long made a practice of speaking to strangers waiting in line at stores, of striking up brief conversations with stockers and clerks, of complimenting random passersby on their hat or their dog.

Almost always, the person’s whole face lights up—sometimes with an expression approaching wonder.

“People like to be noticed,” my dad says.

We’ve grown so accustomed to being invisible.

Life is Relational

It’s a small thing, speaking pleasantly to strangers, jotting off a note or an email—but one small moment of genuine human connection can have an inordinately big effect.

In such a world, any genuine connection, however small, is a glittering reminder that each of us exists, in a real, important, and irreplaceable way. Each of us inhabits a role that nobody else can inhabit in precisely that same way. And each of us needs others, in a beautiful complicated dance of unity in diversity.

For life is relational right down to its most foundational level. It’s a gift from a relational God, one who from eternity past is in loving relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end. Some mathematicians and philosophers say the very universe is all about relationship, that inter-related connections—and not physical matter—came first and are of primary importance. “To exist is to be in communion,” William Dembski writes,

and to be in communion is to exchange information. Accordingly, the fundamental science, indeed the science that needs to ground all other sciences, is a theory of communication, and not, as is widely supposed, an atomistic, reductionist, and mechanistic science of particles or other mindless entities.

Or, as he puts it in an upcoming book, “Things exist not in themselves but insofar as they relate to other things.”

Similarly, social psychologist C. Eric Jones, in the same upcoming book, argues for what he calls a “relational ontology”—reality understood in terms of relationships. He writes:

A relational ontology claims that there are things which cannot be adequately understood without considering their connections to other things. Just as understanding sonship requires a reference to parenthood, so personhood cannot be understood apart from its wider network of relationships.

This interpretive framework and the resulting conception of the person is in sharp contrast to the atomistic and egoistic narrative, which has been the dominant, though rarely explicitly considered, conception of human nature assumed in social psychology research for more than a half century. On the atomistic view, just as we can distinguish different atoms in the atomic table, we can adequately understand individuals in isolation from one another; on the egoistic view, human motivations ultimately reduce to human (genetic) survival interests.

We can’t thrive alone. Connections—genuine, unmasked ones—are the root of all human flourishing. We need to truly see each other. We need to be seen. We don’t make sense except in relationship to one other.

John Donne was right; no man is an island.

Further Reading:

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

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