Here’s the truth: Sometimes the last thing I want to do is reach out to strangers who might need my help. I’m introverted and easily overwhelmed by symptoms of our technological age—I’m flooded with information and global news. Being exposed to the volume of crises going on in the world tends to paralyze me rather than spur me to action. Far from making me feel informed and empowered, I feel impotent to solve the world’s many problems. I don’t know how to help, so I just don’t.
Even if you’re not introverted, it seems like our western culture (which is already pretty “rugged individualist” to begin with) is loath to forge connections with people who are in need. We feel overextended. We don’t want to wound someone’s pride by trying to help them. We might think that our resources are inadequate. We don’t want a kind word to be misconstrued as something inappropriate. We have to be careful not to put ourselves or our families in danger. We might fear that a one-time gesture will obligate us to a long-term commitment.
These are all fears that have run through my mind at various times.
But here’s a more motivating thought: What if reaching out to people we don’t know can improve our quality of life and overall well being?
At 2009 study demonstrated that people who felt empathy for a strangers’ plights experienced a release of oxytocin (a hormone that aids relational bonding) and were subsequently more generous in their charitable giving. Other studies suggest that oxytocin can be boosted by hugs, holding hands, and simply touching another person. Oxytocin increases are associated with lower blood pressure, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, reduced pain, and improved psychological health. In other words, reaching out to a stranger benefits both people. It’s win-win.
Still, those fears will stand in our way unless we kick them to the curb. For me the solution has come in learning how to do what I can do, not what I think I should do. I can’t travel to India to infiltrate a brothel and pull girls out. I can’t be a live-in “mom” at an aftercare home for girls rescued from the sex trades. But I can write a book. I can help to raise awareness. I can buy Christmas presents from companies who support rescued women and children. I can join the prayer teams of people who are doing the heavy lifting.
One of the wonderful things about reaching out to people is that there is no cookie-cutter way to do it. “Love your neighbor,” Jesus reminded us. What does that look like? It looks like anything that helps to breathe life and hope into the heart of another person. It looks like giving a panhandler a job—or a gift card to the grocery store. It looks like standing with a lost child until you find his parents. It looks like giving a ride to someone walking in the rain.
In one of his many wonderful books, Letters to a Young Doctor, surgeon Richard Selzer tells the story of befriending an elderly man at a library. The man’s toenails had grown so long and ingrown that it pained him to walk, but severe arthritis prevented him from trimming the nails himself. This revelation didn’t come directly, but through Dr. Selzer’s powers of observation and empathy. When he realized the problem, he led the man to the restroom, knelt on the filthy floor, and restored this stranger’s feet.
Loving your neighbor looks like that. It looks like seven billion kindnesses expressed in seven billion unique ways. You can do it in a way that makes sense for you. The important thing is to not let any fear or excuse stand in your way, and then do it.
How do you press through your fears about connecting with strangers?