ROCHESTER, MN -- Journalists talk to strangers. It’s what we do.
There is the biblical story of Abraham who, while in the midst of an ecstatic conversation with God, is interrupted by three strangers who appear at his tent. Abraham immediately drops his prayer to take care of the strangers -- to wash their feet, to give them food, and to chat a while.
The spiritual benefits of Abraham's hospitality become known soon enough -- his visitors later turned out to be manifestations of God. So it turns out there's no difference between talking to God and talking to strangers, except that it takes time and effort to understand strangers as divine.
But talking with strangers in the ancient Middle East had distinctly practical benefits as well. They brought news of neighboring tribes, shared ideas about farming and herding, told of daughters and sons in nearby villages who'd reached marriageable age, and opened new channels for trade.
Anyone can talk with strangers, but it's journalism's central professional duty to do so. Across all barriers of race, age, nationality, color, rank or class, it's the journalist's job to ask questions of people who live across those barriers, to discover their news, their beliefs and conditions of life.
Journalism serves democracy by talking to strangers and by sharing their wisdom and life experiences with others. This brings strangers into society’s fold; and it brings us into their fold; which makes us not strangers but familiars.
The practice of talking with strangers strengthens society and democracy in innumerable ways. It evaporates dark secrets that could fester and explode. It alerts society to potential dangers, and it helps focus scattered resources on trouble spots when emergencies arise.
At the same time, talking with strangers extracts the most useful life wisdom from all of society’s members and shares that wisdom with all.
Over the past six years, I’ve talked to many strangers who are our fellow American citizens, mostly immigrants from foreign lands – Somalis, Cambodians, Mexicans, Chinese, Croatians, Indians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Uighurs, Anuak, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Laotians, and others.
The stranger who has made the deepest impact on me as a journalist and as a person – from whom I’ve learned the most – is both among the most exotic people I've ever met, and the most dead.
He is Siddhartha Guatama, a prince-turned-monk who lived in northern India in the 6th century B.C. He is known to history as the Buddha, the formal name he took after experiencing a tranquility of the soul so deep he felt compelled to spend his life teaching it to others.
This particular stranger has struck me as so wise -- his life experiences and his teaching so profound and so relevant to our times -- that I’ve decided to spend a little more time as a journalist with him. I want to learn more, and to share more of what I am learning from this stranger.
Keeping things simple, the topics I hope to cover include:
- What might this wise stranger have to say about such modern-day challenges as terrorism, multiculturalism, immigration, identity-politics, corrupt leadership, and religious extremism?
- Does world peace start with individual morality, and if so how can the two be realistically and practically combined?
- Western Buddhism is usually about learning how to meditate as a stress-reliever, without discussion of the Buddha’s ethical teachings. Does that make sense? How can we become moral, without moralizing?
The Buddha was far from apolitical. He led a large community of sometimes quarrelsome monks; he administered discipline to them as needed; he ordained women as nuns against prevailing social norms; and he gave advice to local kings and generals during times of famine, ethnic violence, epidemics and war. In so doing, the Buddha taught lessons of powerful contemporary relevance.
Avoiding moralizing and religious cant, the Buddha also defined simple steps that ordinary people can take to address, to ease, and to solve personal problems and global problems.
We can learn from such a stranger.
At least, for a little, he deserves a listen. What have we got to lose?