Walking down the Nicollet Mall with a buddy last Saturday around midnight, I came upon a party of 20-somethings posing in front of the Mary Tyler Moore statue. Without thinking too much about how it might look to them — a strange man in a strange hat in a strange world — I asked the group’s appointed photographer if she wanted me to take the picture.
“Yes!,” she said, and thanked me enthusiastically. She showed me how to work her camera, I took a few shots, made them pose and repose until we got at least one keeper, and then we were done and we all laughed and said goodbye and went our separate ways feeling a little better about the world.
At least I did. I often do this take-the-photo-for-the-stranger dance, because it seems to me in the madness of these techno-touch times, chances to actually interact with others are becoming rarer and rarer, and even the smallest form of intimacy can be meaningful. One night at the bar where I work, I was talking about all this to a complete stranger, who suggested I pick up the book “Consequential Strangers: Turning Everyday Encounters into Life-Changing Moments,” which I did.
It’s a quick read, and the title pretty much says it all. Through anecdotal and analytical data, the authors make the point that brief moments — glances, touches, waves from the car or the street — with so-called strangers can have more impact on our feelings about community, self and spirituality than time spent with even our closest family members or friends.
Which validates something my singer/songwriter friend Julianna Raye said to me one time when we were discussing artistic depression. She said she can have the worst case of the blues, but that a smile from a stranger in the produce department of her grocery store can turn her around. I’ve never forgotten that, and my own experience with strangers in the night more often than not gives me faith in humanity even when all sorts of indicators point to the doom of the species.
Also worth remembering in these times of uber-connection is the lessons of theologist, musicologist, psychologist and former monk Thomas Moore, whose landmark books “Care of The Soul: A Guide For Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life” and “Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship” are worth reading or re-reading for anyone who senses an overdose on screens big and small, or who harbors the creeping sense that too much activity online or offline creates a hole in the soul.
Moore argues for an education of the soul in the same way we tend to the intellectual, physical and spiritual: “Fortunately, attention to the soul is not a new idea,” he wrote in 1994. “We have centuries of experience and development behind us, and many sources in which we can find guidance. At certain times in our history, writing letters and engaging in conversation were carefully studied arts.
“Obviously, one can become trite and precious about such things, but it is useful to consider, in the light of past masters of these technologies, ways of talking and writing to each other that fosters soulfulness. This examination might be especially important in our own day when communication is technologically sophisticated and speedy, but not necessarily more soulful.
“Technologies of the soul tend to be simple, bodily, slow, and related to the heart as much as the mind. Everything around us tells us we should be mechanically sophisticated, electronic, quick, and informational in our expressiveness — an exact antipode to the virtues of the soul. It is no wonder, then, that in an age of telecommunications — which, by the way, literally means ‘distant communications’ — we suffer symptoms of the loss of soul. We are being urged from every side to become efficient rather than intimate.”
Maybe so. All I know is that tourist season is almost here, and a digital camera and “Here, let me take that for you” goes a long way.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.