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Discovering That Strangers Aren’t All That Strange

Taking a class with a diverse group of Londoners helped me see the city and my neighbors in an altogether different light.


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One of the great things about cities is that they make you feel as if, just round the next corner, you might meet someone new and strikingly different—someone you’d never come across in a smaller town. That’s the hope at least. One of the bad things about cities is that they all too often fail to live up to this promise. I was born in a city of 12 million people, London, where I still live. Even with roots here, I’ve experienced years of loneliness and disconnection, shuttling between work and a few hours snoozing in front of the TV, exhausted and tapped into a narrow, steadily atrophying social network.

That’s far from my only experience of the city, but in darker times it certainly felt as if everyone in the London street was rattling past me isolated in their own individual bell jar. I’m not alone in feeling this way: A survey of 20,000 Americans released this year by health insurance company Cigna found that almost 50 percent of respondents reported feelings of social isolation. A somewhat less comprehensive survey of Londoners in 2016 found that 55 percent of respondents said the city can “sometimes feel like a lonely place to live.” It seems that many of us feel this growing sense of social dislocation.

I’ve been thinking for a while (half-heartedly) about possible ways to break through these glass walls, to become part of a broader, fuller network of people. This year I found a way—by complete coincidence—in a place where it hadn’t even occurred to try looking: an evening class that I signed up for, hoping for some new skills and a bit of self-insight rather than specifically seeking a fresh sense of community.

Not a standard evening class, mind you. I generally find it hard to concentrate in classes if the course isn’t focused on creating a tangible skill. For this reason I chose a relatively in-depth course leading towards a serious qualification—a certificate in Gestalt Counseling. I had heard about Gestalt from a friend I respect. It’s a form of psychotherapy that focuses not on what could or should be happening for the therapeutic client, but what is in the present moment. The practice is underpinned by a belief that people have an innate drive to self-develop—a drive that can become stuck or misdirected, but which can be rediscovered through a process of self-exploration, self-acceptance, and non-judgmental experiment. The course I chose took a commitment of hours and concentration, and is one many people use as a starting point for a career as a therapist. I wasn’t planning to be one of those people, though, even though I wanted something serious enough to force me to concentrate. I just wanted to be challenged by something that, in contrast to my day job, was more experiential than intellectual, a chance to feel and sense intuitively rather than simply think.

What I actually got was a magical surprise. Certainly, I was challenged mentally, but above all—and unexpectedly—I developed a completely new sense of connection with the city around me, one that helped me see London and my neighbors in an altogether different light.

Each week my training group would file into a little room in Kings Cross—always too hot or too cold—and focus hard on learning to listen to each other. I’d vaguely expected my fellow students to be much like me—that is, mainly white, middle-class professionals. Instead, I met a group that one co-student described as “London in a room”: people who spanned four generations, had roots on five continents, and jobs in places ranging from secure teaching units to casinos.

Every day in a city, we brush past people with different backgrounds and outlooks from our own. To sit with each other and really focus hard on expressing and understanding each other’s experiences, however, that’s something completely different. By encouraging me to focus hard on both practicing and accepting others’ empathy—that state that stands poised in the doorway between detached sympathy and direct identification—it really got under my skin.

Slowly, we started to open up and find out more about each other. One co-student told me that our group’s diversity had made the course the first time she’d experienced a London that wasn’t “bubble-like,” and that she was challenging past assumptions that she had little in common with the strangers she’d pass daily. Another woman said that her experience of the men in the group—who were outnumbered by women three to four—had made her change her mind about who could and couldn’t empathize with her. In the future, she said, she might be open to working with a male therapist, something she’d never have previously considered. And one of my male co-students said that the close contact with other people on the course had taught him (to his relief) that he wasn’t actually Special with a capital S—because when looked at closely, the intricacies of anyone’s personality were complex and distinctive.

We also got to imagine what it was like in each other’s shoes. In discussion, we learned: for example, how a co-student from Latin America felt trapped within the English language, feeling like a left-handed person forced to use her right hand. We heard from some people of color who said they experience a daily diet of micro-aggressions that can leave them wary of expressing themselves openly, for fear of being deemed too angry. We got to see how people aware they are generally lucky can sometimes be hard on themselves, because they feel guilty bothering with themselves when they know many others have it worse. And of myself, I learned that I sometimes talk to keep people at bay and that, despite having assumed I’d accepted myself decades ago, I still have all sorts of splinters left in me from growing up gay in a homophobic society.

This was all heady stuff, but it was going out into London after class that was perhaps the true revelation. If the things we had discussed in class were what just 15 of us had experienced, imagine that pattern extending into the street and out across the world! I’d pass someone in the street and wonder what they were feeling and if they were okay. A queue for the bus started to vibrate for me as a mass of untold stories. Sometimes I went over the top with this feeling of wonder and solidarity. “The light will shine again for you soon, dear fanny-pack-toting tourist,” I’d think when looking at someone caught at a crossing, or find myself inwardly shouting, “Stand by your brave, if foolhardy, choices!” at a passerby with a bad tattoo.

But did this experience really make a community out of my class? Having experienced so much together, we were all keen to make sure it did, partly because we were reluctant to let such an affecting experience simply trail away into nothingness. Two weeks after graduating, our lives are already being pulled in different directions. While we stay in touch, most of the August chats in the WhatsApp group we set up are people taking it in turns to say “I can’t do Friday.” Well, it is vacation season. But a community is more than just day-to-day friends; it’s about having people to turn to—possibly in extremis, and possibly just because you’ve got something as simple as shared tastes or enthusiasms in common. And since the course, the range of people I have to turn to has expanded.

In the loneliness survey cited above, almost 60 percent of respondents said that their ideas aren’t shared by the people around them. It’s not just that I don’t feel this now. It’s also that participating in the group has shown me that people who “share my ideas”—or at least a common ground on which to express them—don’t necessarily look, live, or talk like me. Even if I don’t see these people face-to-face regularly, they will never be just acquaintances to me, and I feel supported and accepted by them. While the cords between us may stretch, they will not break.

I can’t pretend that my life in London has changed beyond recognition since starting the course—I haven’t even officially graduated yet—but something has shifted. Not only did it expand my community, it expanded my willingness to finding more of it in unexpected places. I didn’t discover a specific space as such; the shift for me has been more about an attitude of openness. Now, when people talk to me in passing in the street, I let myself linger and listen. When some new opportunity comes up, as an experiment, I say yes. Above all, I look at the people around me differently, being slower to jump to what I now see as essentially mechanical, learned suspicion or judgement.

That’s surely a good way for anyone to make a city seem like a place with greater potential for connection. In an age where much interaction, especially through social media, has become polarized, vitriolic, and cruel, it pays for us to see each other in a different light from the crude social masks we present to the world. It is valuable, even transformative, to reflect that everyone around you is walking some form of tightrope, and on some level is, in fact, beautiful, resourceful, and full of courage.

Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published August 21, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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