THE BLOG
19/02/2016 09:16 GMT | Updated 18/02/2017 05:12 GMT

L'Etranger

I was travelling home by train late one Friday. It was a cold and rainy evening but the empty carriage was a bonus. I settled in the corner and sat back enjoying the view of night-time London through the window. Somewhere along the journey, a middle-aged man got on. He was carrying a rucksack and a couple of battered carrier bags. He looked around the carriage deciding where to sit. To my surprise, he sat down directly opposite me, his eyes fixed on me.

I stiffened, and was disturbed as to why the man chose to sit right opposite, something quite unusual for Londoners who tend to sit as far away from each other as possible. My mind began racing on its own accord, recalling recent news reports about refugees and migrants. I realised that even someone like me - someone who spends her time promoting methods to overcome stereotypical thinking and views, and breaking down myths by applying critical reasoning of the information that we are fed - even I was not immune to the hysteria whipped up by government and media, resulting from just a couple of minutes of stress from an unfamiliar situation.

I felt ashamed of myself and began to ridicule my own anxiety, which made me start to relax. In the meantime, the man had put the rucksack down, placed his scruffy bags on the neighbouring seat and began to rummage in them. He took out some food - something tasty wrapped in flat bread, that he went on to devour with great gusto. Then he took out a sharon fruit for dessert. Judging by his hands and his overall appearance, he was returning home from a hard day's work.

He got out his mobile phone and began to scroll through it. Once he found what he had been looking for, he pressed a button and the carriage suddenly filled with the sound of a child's laughter. I wondered if he had no headphones - or maybe he wanted me to hear that laughter, too? Probably the latter as he watched the video clip three or four times. A little girl of three or four was laughing happily and loudly, and this was interspersed with short comments or instructions that she gave in an unfamiliar language. It sounded like a recording of a daughter and a father playing a game together.

The stranger shone - changed beyond recognition, no longer the gloomy odd character who had so scared me fifteen minutes earlier. Focused on his mobile, he was beaming widely, a most charming smile. His face no longer looked tired, he was quietly meditating, emanating some inner gentleness.

I was not sure if he was, in fact, dozing when I left the carriage, or just pretending not to see me, clearly letting me know that there was no need to be alarmed by him in any way.

I began to reflect about the parallel worlds which we all inhabit - worlds that do not come into contact with each other or even with the real world, perhaps. London was the stranger's real world, but in fact he lived somewhere else, far away, side by side with his wonderful little girl.

It occurred to me that when he had got on the train, he instinctively gravitated closer towards me, another human being, to share his evening. We humans are social animals, and contact with others is very important to us. Having sat down opposite me, he ate his dinner and enjoyed his daughter's laughter in my company.

That night I kept imagining his life, his thoughts, his feelings, and I realised that to reveal one's vulnerability to a stranger on a commuter train requires tremendous courage. Without words, he literally told me his whole life. Moreover, I accepted it with gratitude, without judging.

I do not know if he had been trying to break his London isolation but he had succeeded in letting me know quite plainly that he was not a threat. Moreover, he saw my vulnerability, took it on board and made it his responsibility. So I went on to ponder about myself and those around me, wondering if we have the skills, the patience and the wisdom to see and to accept?

Our own parallel worlds, built on the narratives inherited from the tradition and culture of our families' in which we grew up, from the social sphere in which we evolved, from the dominant public discourse of the time, and many other things, all serve to shut out awareness of the world and prevent us establishing contacts outside our comfort zone.

The further these parallel worlds move away from each other in their understanding and acceptance of basic human values, the more likely the emergence of aggression between these different realms.

As a peacebuilding organisation, at International Alert we believe that working to overcome ethnic, racial, gender, social and other stereotypes has a positive impact on conflict dynamics, and can build resistance against the triggers of potential conflicts, of which there are all too many in different corners of the earth.

Our approach aims largely at strengthening, building, informing, educating, and so on, based on the mode of 'change' and 'action'. However, this experience made me think that perhaps we might also harness the potential and power of the philosophical concept of just 'being' to establish human contact, trust and empathy between people, by allowing ourselves to reveal our vulnerability to 'another' - no different to ourselves.