Fear of strangers

Wednesday’s offering for ‘Over-to-you’ on BBC Radio Humberside.

Yesterday I was working down in London and although I was born and brought up in the capital, I found that a day travelling on the underground and negotiating the crowds was quite enough for me.  I always find it a strange sensation to be on the underground, sharing a confined space with loads of people and yet feeling totally isolated.

There are a number of unwritten rules about surviving on the underground – don’t look at anybody; don’t smile; don’t engage; wear headphones; have your iPod at a volume which ensures that you can’t hear those around you; if you don’t want to have your head immersed in one of the free newspapers then read the advertisements or study the underground map, but above all – don’t engage.  By following these rules you can negotiate your way through the millions of people who commute into London each day.

At this time of year the commuters are joined by hosts of tourists who appear blissfully ignorant of these unwritten rules — they look at fellow passengers, they smile, they ask questions, they engage, they acknowledge that they are sharing space with fellow human beings and in the main they are ignored.

Cities are hostile and impersonal places.  There is an underlying fear of the stranger and to survive in them you have to turn off that fundamental human attribute of relating to others in your community.  Although I was brought up never to talk to strangers, over the years I have found that whenever you actually do talk to a stranger you are invariably rewarded by the encounter.  I have met some fascinating people with stories to tell, experiences to share and ideas to explore.

Fear of strangers is of course one of our survival mechanisms and it is rooted in insecurity. Fear of the stranger constantly battles against other human instincts which drive us to live in relationship with those around us, an instinct which is there because we are actually safer when working together. When we allow our fear of the strangers to dominate then we become very dehumanised and it is when we are dehumanised that we are at our most dangerous.  Racism and ethnic cleansing are not new phenomenon, but occur when we allow our fears and insecurity to control our understanding of others.

Making community, engaging with those who live around us, understanding the diversity and difference which is part and parcel of the human race are activities which enrich our experience of being alive.  When disasters happen, such as last year’s floods in our region, we need the support of those who live around us, we need to relate, we need to engage, we need to belong.  In an increasingly global village our concept of community has to extend for we need to work together at the problems facing our planet and we will never overcome our fears of the stranger unless we engage with them, risking our conversation, looking into their eyes, letting them see our smile, communicating that we are people of peace.

We get a distorted view of the stranger through the press and the media as they only report the exceptions to human behaviour not the normal and the government has now made an industry out of making us afraid of the stranger – so whilst there are some very dangerous and difficult people in the world, the vast, vast, vast majority of strangers are just like you and me – they want to find a space to live their lives in peace, to bring up their children, to enjoy the gift of life and to belong.  In the Bible one of the most repeated phrases is “don’t be afraid”, for when we are afraid then we are at our worst — and I’ve glimpsed what world looks like when we are afraid of each other – it is called the London Underground.

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One Response to Fear of strangers

  1. m says:

    Really nice description of ppl behaviour in a subway (or you’d call it Tube), seems like it’s alike all over the world (‘m writing from quite distant part of it).
    Though i understand the message and it’s allright for most normal people… But i love that dehumanization part of big cities, for some it makes living there much more comfortable, those who lack the need “to belong” – and not all of us are “very dangerous”… Just being a bit autistic and brought up on all the postmodern stuff, would you need to “make community and engage with those living around” when you are really not one of any of them, just share the time-place. I think “global village” thing is about ease of communication/transportation, making it into real “village” would be kind of an overkill :)

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