You can make fun of Cupid with his bow and arrows but sometimes love does just strike out of the blue and Cupid makes as much sense as anything else.
In this instance, I’m not referring to romantic love. Rather, I’m talking about the love of a stranger…someone you have never met before. Someone you don’t know from a bar of soap. Yet, for some strange reason they have loved you or you have loved them and really, genuinely cared.
I am not going to quote those who have gone before me and come up with all sorts of elaborate definitions of love. As much as I usually love classifying and defining things with Darwinian precision, right now I’m feeling that love needs to be free and unfettered. Let out of its cage and not put back into any kind of “box”.
That’s because the love of a stranger doesn’t make sense. We expect even demand love and its implicit attention and understanding from our close family and friends and conversely expect the reverse of a stranger. However, sometimes a stranger “gets us” in a way that our nearest and dearest do not and we make a connection that is very much “outside the square” or outside our inner circle and we are almost bamboozled when it happens.
Why is it so?
I am a very extroverted person and it is quite usual for me to chat to strangers. As much as I need to be alone to write, paint and create, I’m usually chatting to somebody in my head while I’m doing these things so I’m not really so alone after all. People are the centre of my universe. I don’t always love them but they intrigue and fascinate me. I try to nut them out. I know there are no definitive answers but life is also about the journey.
So it’s not surprising that I am quite familiar with the love of a stranger. I’ve had quite a few of these experiences and can no longer just write them off as “chance”. They were meant to be. There had to be a reason!
Every now and then, someone comes into my heart. Sometimes, I know them. Sometimes, I don’t. That person comes into my heart and I care about them in a way that really defies explanation. While this might seem like a fabulous thing, it can actually be quite awkward as well and I can find myself trying to pull back my emotions like reigning in a wild horse. I care so much but how can I possibly convey that love to a stranger without intruding or looking like some kind of fruitcake?
I end up doing what a lot of people probably do with this very, very special love. I keep it to myself. Hide my love away. I might write poems, which never get read and some of them have been quite beautiful. I’m not talking about my writing style here but the vision that I’ve had of that person and I really would like to somehow step across that divide….that gap that exists between strangers…and connect. Surely, this is why this person has been put in my heart in the first place? There has to be some point to it all!
So while there is so much beauty in the love of a stranger, there can also be this sense of overwhelming distance, inhibition and frustration and it can all just get too difficult in the end…another mission impossible!
I recently experienced the love of a stranger myself in a very powerful and life changing way.
Last October, I found out I had mild Institial Lung Disease, a known complication from my auto-immune disease. This news was absolutely devastating. This disease can be quite dormant or it can go out of control like wild fire and basically take you out very quickly. My kids were only 7 and 5 at the time and my daughter still pretty much clung to my leg. The thought of them losing their mum was extremely intense. You can just imagine the kind of very dark place I was in at the time. I should, of course, mention the upside is that this lung disease can be quite dormant and there is treatment available but that treatment can get very toxic. I’ve known all of this for five years so it wasn’t a surprise but once my nemesis had finally arrived, I still felt shattered (so far I am in the dormant category which has been fabulous news!)
After getting this news, I wandered into the hospital volunteer shop. Our volunteers are called the Pink Ladies and they have a stall selling second hand books, toys and all those hand-knitted items you find in hospital shops.
I can’t even remember what I was buying but as I was paying, I burst into tears. I am not the bursting into tears in public kind of person. Most of us do like to think of ourselves as somewhat stoic, even when we’ve just been given dreadful news.
Well, one of the pink ladies takes my hand and smiles at me and I’m pretty sure she even told me I would be alright. Usually, when someone tells me I’m going to be all right in the middle of a crisis, I’m rather rebellious and my inner cynic growls and snaps away like a rabid dog. “What would you know?” Growl! Growl! Growl! But this time it was very, very different. As she held my hand, I felt the most amazingly intense sense of love almost like a white light. I felt such warmth, comfort and strangely in the midst of all this heartache, I felt a sense of peace.
I had been touched by a stranger.
As much as I am loved by my husband, my kids, my family and friends, this was different. I really believed I’d been touched by God. That God reached out to me through the love of a stranger. Perhaps for some people, that might make perfect logical sense but for me, it was still a very steep learning curve. You see, I’ve had a few chats with God about why I have this disease and not all of them have been particularly pretty.
As I’ve thought about this recently, I have also wondered how or even if this experience affected the pink lady at all. Was she conscious of feeling this great love for me at the time or was she just some kind of vessel…that God just moved through her without her even being aware of it at all? I would like to find out. I am always curious.
Yet, despite all my frequent hospital visits, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen this pink lady again. Funny that!
As wonderful and life changing as it was for me to experience being loved by a stranger, it can be quite a different thing to love a stranger yourself. How are you supposed to express that love and very deep sense of concern about this person you don’t even know or might know a little bit but not enough “to intrude”?
Recently, I found myself in quite an awkward situation. One of my doctors became quite ill and the whole thing was kept very quiet. That’s understandable. Every patient is entitled to their privacy and as a doctor, your privacy is probably something you have to fight pretty hard to preserve. I get that. At the same time, my doctor had saved my life and so it was only natural that I would, at the very least, care about him. But there is a real line in the sand between doctors and patients. Even though he knew all about me, I knew almost nothing about him at all. He was as good as a stranger. I saw him in shared rooms in the hospital clinic where there was nothing even remotely personal so I hadn’t even seen a family photo…nothing. But as my doctor became a patient himself, I was subconsciously barracking for him like all of Australia calling out: “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi! at the Olympics. I really, really wanted him to win. Not for me but for his family. Sadly, I couldn’t tell him any of this although I did send him a couple of cards. As much as you care, you also need to respect other people’s space, their privacy and their need to deal with their issues in their own way. Not everyone blogs their innermost thoughts onto the Internet hoping to attract as many readers as possible. Most of my closest friends and family are ironically extremely private people.
Unfortunately, my doctor passed away. Again, I was deeply saddened but not for myself. I felt a very strong connection to his wife for some reason. A woman I didn’t know existed before the notice appeared in the paper. She was really on my mind. I don’t know why. Certainly, some of my mother’s friends are starting to lose their husbands and Mum has shared some of their struggles with me…what it is like to lose your soul mate, your partner. Perhaps, that was it.
Anyway, I wrote his wife a card and delivered that while I was still working on my letter. I wanted to give his family a few anecdotes about him from a patient’s perspective. When my grandmother passed away, we received some extraordinary letters and insights and they were such treasures…diamonds! I have this sense that when you lose someone you love, you want to hold onto as much of them as possible and every little story and anecdote is precious.
But I guess this writing process intensified my sense of connection and soon I was doing my usual thing of walking round in someone else’s shoes and experiencing grief that wasn’t mine. Fortunately, I went away for a week and that helped break that connection, which was a good thing. Feeling so intensely for a stranger who I wouldn’t see and couldn’t connect with, wasn’t helping anyone. Moreover, there are so many people closer to home, especially my husband and kids, who really needed me back.
Thinking things through, love in action is probably the best way of conveying your love for a stranger. When someone is going through hard times, you can cook them a meal, pick up their kids or make a donatation. These are socially acceptable avenues, safe ways of expressing your love, respect and concern for a stranger. People are understandably wary when strangers turn up on their doorstep unannounced.
One of the greatest stories about the love of a stranger in action, involves rescuing the survivors of the Titanic. I came across this story around the time that my doctor passed away and it showed me that loving and caring for a stranger, particular someone who is hurting, isn’t such a strange thing after all. It is part of being human and being more than just a cold and calculating machine!
When Carpathia received the distress signal from the sinking Titanic, she was 51 miles and close to 4 hours away. Instead of thinking “it’s not my problem” and ignoring the situation, Captain Rostrum, the crew and the passengers all rallied together and pushed themselves and that ship well beyond its limits to come to the aid of total strangers. Of course, Carpathia was travelling through the very same icy waters which had sunk Titanic and was also at high risk of a collision with an iceberg herself. She wasn’t exactly the latest and greatest ship either and as Captain Rostrum exceeded her maximum speeds, there was every possibility that her boilers could blow. The heaters were turned off to conserve power and everything went into getting that boat there as fast as possible. The cooks were ordered to make soup and passengers gave up their cabins for the survivors and even gave them some of their clothes. You didn’t hear anybody cry: “Oh the Titanic sank and ruined my holiday!”
That was the love of a stranger.
More recently, in January 2011, we had the Brisbane Floods. I was staying near Byron Bay in Northern NSW at the time and we experienced similar weather conditions. It felt like the entire Pacific Ocean was somehow falling from the sky and it rained and rained and rained for days on end. All of this rain didn’t go down well in Brisbane, which I found out has been built on a glorified flood plain. I have been on picnics beside the Brisbane River where she looked so calm and still but she was really just a sleeping giant. With all this rain, the Brisbane River burst its banks spewing mud and guts everywhere. There was mass devastation.
Almost immediately, huge bands of volunteers mobilised, bringing along their own mops, buckets, gum boots and even cleaning products. They went into strangers’ homes and cleaned up the mess. You could just imagine the mess too. What it was like to clean up all that filthy, stinky river mud. It’s the sort of thing nobody wants to deal with and certainly not a job any sensible person would go chasing and yet they did. I even heard of a stranger clearing a dead cow out of a complete stranger’s home in Ipswich. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is.
I’ve written a lot here about the love of a stranger in difficult or tragic circumstances but I also wanted to share another situation which means a lot to me.
Last year, when I went down to the Sydney Writer’s Festival, I attempted to buy some new clothes. That might sound simple enough but I couldn’t find anything which fit and had such a dreadfully demoralising shopping experience. I had been alternating between two identical pairs of jeans just to keep myself covered up and was really desperate for some new clothes. Since I’ve been on prednisone, I have put on weight and it’s been very hard to find anything which fit let alone reflected my personality or character at all. I came back from Sydney feeling so defeated. I’d given up on clothes shopping for life!!
A few days later, however, I was going to my local fruit shop with the kids when I noticed the most extraordinary scarf in a shop window nearby. This scarf literally pulled me in off the street and I was mesmerised. I had to have it. Now, this is the great thing about scarves because they really are one size fits all. they can reflect your personal style and also camouflage a few sins.
The next day, I went back into the shop and instead of the usual neglect, I was suddenly treated like a movie star and my new found “friend” took me through such a range of clothes and looks that I’d never ever considered before and really pampered me. She spent time with me introducing me to a weird contraption called the shrug, a cape and I think I bought a black top and a knitted jacket. More than just buying clothes, she helped me feel validated, worthwhile and special. She was so positive and as we chatted, we found out we had a lot in common. Slowly but surely, my “muse” as I’ll call her has encouraged me, listened and become such a lifesaving friend. I go into the shop which I’ll call “The Sanctuary” and I now have “my chair” and I sit out the back and we chat about so many personal and precious things. I am not the only person who visits the muse either. There is a little following, which is what happens when you love people. People gravitate towards you. They want to be with you…a part of you even.
(Just a small digression here…I have subsequently lost 10 kilos!!)
Even though I still feel somewhat awkward about loving and caring for strangers, I am realising that it’s not so weird after all. Loving a stranger is actually quite beautiful and often very altruistic involving much more give than take. But it can take a bit of courage and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone to take that risk. While it can be difficult to know quite how to share our love with a stranger, somehow we need to persevere instead of doing what I’ve been doing and hiding my love away, keeping it secret. Love isn’t something you want to keep trapped in a bottle or some kind of bug catcher. Love needs to free… as free as a butterfly in flight!
So on that note, it’s time for me to leave my inner labyrinth and go with the flow…love’s flow instead of being so ridiculously inhibited. I have sent off one of my poems this week and I’m going to finish off that letter to my doctor’s wife. My doctor’s obituary recently appeared in the paper and it was very warm and intimate, providing me I guess with a bridge of some sort…some way of reaching across the great divide.
I just had this thought…
If we could only paint the world with love, perhaps the Earth could even glow like the sun…and not through global warming either!
What are we waiting for?
I’ll race you…
On your marks! Get set! Go!
Last one there’s a rotten egg!