Kindness of Strangers
Natalia J. Garland
Some people tend to rely on sayings to explain away
complicated or unwanted circumstances. The first and second
sayings listed below, for example, are often regarded as natural
or logical, although they are false and impede growth. The third
saying expresses a sad reality, although that reality can and
should be improved. All three sayings promote submission to
You can't miss what you never had.
When God closes a door, He opens a window.
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
When people say,
"You can't miss what you never had," they sound like
they are stating an obvious fact. Exactly what kinds of
things are they talking about? What can't you miss? Things like
electricity, education, a diamond ring, arms and legs, a vacation?
And why can't you miss these things just because you never had
them? The assumption is that ignorance is bliss.
If you do not have
the basic necessities of modern life, that means there is a lack
of resources. If there is a lack of resources, then there is
also a lack of opportunity. Without opportunity, people do not
have the power of choice or the means by which to make a
contribution to society. Not only is this lack felt by the
individual, but society is also depleted when its citizens cannot
participate at full capacity.
miss what you never had" really means trying to function
from a deficit. If you never had a vacation, then you are feeling
the accumulated daily fatigue of your responsibilities. This is
the same as missing what you never had. Perhaps you can
live without ever owning a diamond ring, but why should you have
to live without the power to choose whether to buy one?* The
pseudo-compassion of the "You can't miss what you never
had" saying now reveals its underlying oppression.
Likewise, I have
often heard genuinely religious people say, "Whenever God
closes a door, He opens a window." They are sincere when
they say this. Now, what kind of god goes around closing doors on
people and then expects them to crawl through a window? Or are
you supposed to gaze out the opened window and view life
differently under a metaphorical new ray of light?
People seem to say
this in reaction to disappointment. There is a loss of some sort.
It is emotionally painful. Rather than face the loss and rebuild,
they settle for a substitution that can be framed within their
limited window. They submit to a cruel god, rather than to expand
their faith and move forward through a dark period in their life.
What bothers me
most about the "Whenever God closes a door" saying is
that it is not biblical. There is no Bible passage that refers
to this. On the contrary, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John,
"I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved,
and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10:9).
Fooling around with the symbol of the door is like altering Holy
Scripture. It creates a falsehood that passes for truth. God is
reduced to and accepted as an oppressor.
This brings me to
the third saying, "I have always depended on the kindness of
strangers." I occasionally hear literate women quoting
Blanche DuBois as a way of summarizing the only good relationships
they have ever had. Blanche is a character in A Street Car
Named Desire, a play by Tennessee Williams. The quotation
also describes the lives of other women, including patients, who
may be less educated or unaware of their prototype, Blanche.
Some women have
never had a meaningful long-term relationship. They did not have
loving parents, their siblings are estranged, and there has never
been marital happiness. These women have survived, practically
and emotionally, through the intervention of kind others with the
resources, power, or influence to help. This help is usually a
one-time event, and the helpers are like knights in shining armor
or fairy god-mothers.
The care provided
may be a job, money, a gift, advocacy, protection, or some other
form of safe passage through a stage of life that otherwise
would not have been survived. These women gratefully remember
such kind strangers as their most significant relationships.
Moreover, they are able to apply these helpful events to their own
long-term benefit. The therapist may also be viewed as a kind
stranger, and may be only one of several therapists to whom the
Blanche-patient has turned for support over a lifetime.
So, why is
identification with Blanche a problem? It normalizes a very
unfortunate lifestyle. The individual accepts aloneness as the
price to be paid for their uniqueness, differences, or
imperfections. There is a failure to take charge of life and to
act upon the environment. The oppression is rather tragic
because it has its roots in a lack of personal empowerment and
Indeed there are
kind people in the world, and this is not meant to underestimate
the virtue of kindness and its positive impact. It is dependency
on acts of kindness, and the elevation of kind strangers to
central relationships, that I perceive as the problem. Kind
strangers do not view the Blanches of the world in the same way.
The intimacy is all in the mind of the beholder.
Oppression can be
subtle. Psychological oppression is an internal process, almost
like brainwashing, and it has negative lifestyle consequences.
Some people do not believe in an absolute truth, but we can all
try to grasp objectivity, reality, and facts. Clear thinking will
help to set us free from emotional bondage.
(Written 02/06/06: bibliography available.)
[NOTE: For other
essays on similar topics, see That's Your Opinion (written 08/02/04), Meet Me Halfway (written 10/06/03).]
[*ADDED NOTE: Lest
it be misconstrued that the phrase, "why should you have
to live without the power to choose," refers to socialism or
income redistribution, let me emphasize that I was referring to
educational and job opportunities, to psychological empowerment,
and to fulfillment of personal desire as opposed to the intentional
stifling of the human spirit and blocking of access to resources,
goods, and services.]
Until we meet