by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)
Strangers are people that we categorize by gender, race, profession and physical characteristics. That is the full extent of our knowledge of them and so it is how we can come to judge them. Becoming aware of the consequential aspect of those we see as strangers offers a wholly different perspective. Most of us probably intuit that there is a strata of people between stranger and friend. We recognize that there are people we are connected with beyond family and friend but that connection is so subtle its value may go unnoticed. Often the term acquaintance is used as the bridge between friend and stranger. They might earn the description, “my friend the . . . (hairdresser, bank teller, car mechanic)”. In their book, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman creatively re-describe this category of strangers and acquaintances in our lives as “Consequential Strangers”. They give the people we once classified as strangers and acquaintances stronger connections to HOW we are.
“The term ‘consequential strangers’ captures a fascinating paradox about casual relationships. They are as vital to our well-being, growth and day-to-day existence as family and close friends.” Consequential Strangers, Melinda Blau/Karen Fingerman PhD, 2009 W. W. Norton Co.
The concept of consequential strangers didn’t come out of a Buddhist perspective but from a human being perspective. It offers a paradigm slant that brings into clearer focus the reality of casual human connections that have a profound effect on the not-self. There is a factor in casual relationships that most people don’t acknowledge. They readily give credit to the impact that friends and family have on their lives while failing to recognize the value of those people who exist on their societal periphery, people we might see only once a week, or that we encounter once a month, or even once a lifetime. It also encompasses people from the past whose influence still resonates even though they haven’t been physically near in decades.
Write up your list of consequential strangers, not family or friends but people who’ve none-the-less had an effect on HOW you are.
Examples from my own life are:
The guy at the car dealer’s maintenance shop. He sets appointments there and makes recommendations to clients. His contribution to HOW I live is that he makes sure our transportation is taken care of, and takes the time to explain things.
The librarians who not only hold books for me but guide me to new reading and research opportunities. They enrich my life not only with their smiles and kind words. Through their efforts my knowledge is greatly expanded.
Guests that I see once or twice a year at my job. The “how are you and your family” conversations may be infrequent but no less sincere. These are folks who value my knowledge and presentation of wine and foods, and drive me to experiment and learn so that I can have fresh information the next time I see them.
The consequential strangers in our lives add zest, originality, knowledge and assistance in our day-to-day lives. They are personal connections that also enhance our Buddhist practice. Take another look at Blau’s quote above and substitute the word “causal” for “casual” a change in wording that removes the paradox as the causal relationship becomes the focus. “The term ‘consequential strangers’ captures a fascinating paradox about causal relationships.” A person we encounter casually will have a causal effect, most subtle, some dramatic. This must be true if we ascribe to the ideal that what we do matters, than what a stranger does must matter, too. This must be true if we recognize that every experience brings about a new “not-self”. Each instance of causal encounter benefits the social self of all involved. The ability for us to experience connections outside our circle of friends and family supplies a holistic interconnection with the Universe.
With the concept of consequential strangers in mind take a look at the list of people you made. Chances are you are thinking of others that could be added to the list. Imagine a spider’s web with the tight three or four layers of center rings being family and friends and the threads that compose the remainder of the web the connections between you and the consequential strangers in your life.
Once aware of their existence it isn’t difficult to recognize the effect that consequential strangers have on us. What about our role as the consequential stranger in the lives of others? As Buddhist practitioners we must be aware of how we interact with others, that we be always mindful of our speech, action and thoughts. We don’t only have causal effects on those close to us but now can realize the more broad ranging effect we have on the people around us due to the realization of the effect that consequential strangers can have on us. Engagement with, or the act of being a consequential stranger is an opportunity to further develop mindfulness of HOW we are in relation to others. Are we being a positive influence? Are they being a positive influence?
The Mahayana tradition realizes the positive effect that friends and family can have on our practice, and in fact places a great value on friends who encourage us to walk the path, or walk the path beside us. Realizing that our engagement with consequential strangers can also have a positive effect on our practice, and on the lives of those we encounter must empower us to be more mindful of our actions and thoughts. The Engaged Dharma tradition offers that same value to consequential strangers.