Have you ever heard of the Strangers Project? I hope you can take the time to check out the website for this project, as it isn’t going to be the main topic of this post, but I’ll give a brief overview about how it started and what it is. Brandon Doman created the project in 2009 in New York after he had some curiosity spark about the people around him in a coffee shop–He wanted to get to their stories. In the about section, he writes:
“I’ve been asking that question for the past fourteen years and have received more than 85,000 hand-written, true, and anonymous answers. Whether about love or loss, joy or fear, what they all have in common is an honest voice of the human experience. We’re living in a time where the differences between us are magnified. I believe that what starts as a simple act of listening can be a profoundly transformative experience. Exploring the lives of the people we share space with every day shows us how wonderfully human we all are. These stories engage strangers of all ages and backgrounds to reflect, rejoice, heal and connect through words.”
At the time of writing this, the first picture is a handwritten note from September 2nd and in this note the person shared about words from others that have “kept them alive” which is an ideal fit for the month of September which recognizes Suicide Prevention. Feelings of loneliness are highly correlated with suicide. Having connection to others is essential to mental health and suicide prevention. I think this project provides a unique method of connecting with others. I’m not going to get into detail on the facts about suicide, warning signs, prevention ideas, etc. I’m more of a storyteller, so I wanted to share some personal experiences that have related to this concept of loneliness and how I think we could all make a difference towards the efforts of suicide prevention and positive change in mental health overall.
Many people that work within the mental health field will probably relate, but from a young age I have had a great passion for understanding the people around me and wanting to make a positive impact. I remember one of my favorite things about college being the huge, diverse group of people around me. I tend to be shy in crowds, but not so much with a small group or single stranger. I love meeting new people and hearing about their stories or perspectives on all different topics.
A specific memory comes to mind from college when I was walking between classes down Welch, a busier street during college time, and there was a homeless man sitting on the curb area of an alleyway. He wasn’t asking for financial or material help and I watched several people and groups walk right past him, some moving to avoid closeness. I almost walked past. I wasn’t sure what to offer, being a broke college student, or if he even needed the help.
I decided to turn around and sit with him.
I missed lunch and my next class, but I’ll never forget how his face lit up when I said “hey, what’s up how’s your day?” He shared a lot with me that I don’t quite remember, something about how he really wants to be able to ride a train and something about visiting his family. I wrote it down afterwards in my journal somewhere and wish I could find it to share with you but I could tell having someone ask questions and share about his life and ideas was a great opportunity for him–He seemed motivated and happy.. When I got up to leave, a person from a business a couple doors down from the alley came out and told me it was really great what I did and I smiled and said “thanks.” But, it made me question why it was a great thing because if that person was another student or an old friend that happened to be sitting alone outside it wouldn’t have seemed odd or as a “great” act to do. I wondered how the man would have felt if he had heard the compliment–I can only imagine a bit ostracized or inhuman. The compliment wasn’t intended to come across that way, I presume, I tend to overthink things like that. I believe that overthinking social interactions helps to recognize issues such as microaggressions and barriers which can help us learn ways to be better people or do things in a different way to limit possible negative effects.
The point of this story is that it made me realize how there are many different ways to show kindness and maybe make a positive difference in someone’s life, one that could motivate them to keep going. As previously stated, loneliness or lack of connection with others is highly correlated with poor mental health and suicide. Feelings of being important or rather simply “existing”, not being ostracized for differences, being treated as a “friend” or even just a “human” are huge factors when it comes to being able to have connection with others. I think the Strangers Project has done a great job with this through the safety sense of animosity and the normalization of the project for people to share anything from joyful things to possible embarrassing or topics not discussed in daily interactions. Acts of kindness are another amazing way to build this type of connection and combat loneliness in the world which with more people participating in doing so would make a huge positive impact!
Since meeting this man, I’ve started a hobby of doing acts of kindness that I try to complete at least once a week. I also realized how uncomfortable with praise or confrontations about these kinds of interactions I am, I’ve also become more aware of the possible dangers associated with going up to strangers in alleyways. An anonymous, safe, and enjoyable way I have done this hobby is through kindness rock crafts and writing anonymous letters.
Kindness rocks are made with paint or stickers to decorate with positive words or emojis which I like to leave around parks, trails, and my apartment complex. For letters, I like to hand write them on cards (handmade or bought) and leave them during non-busy hours on strangers’ doors around my apartment building. Sometimes I leave candy inside if I happen to have some around. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if they were noticed or just thrown away but I hoped that someone who needed it would notice. Then, over this last summer, I happened to befriend some neighbors of mine who had one of the rocks I made in their living room and told me in a funny way that they gave it to their roommate after he had a bad day, and although I think it was meant as a joke, it added some positivity to their day and showed me that my crafts were noticed by others. 🙂
We can’t always give in a material or financial way, everyone struggles, and I think financial constraints keep people from giving or make them feel like they “can’t help.” I remember feeling badly as a child when we would do fundraisers such as collecting pop tabs or food drives and I couldn’t help unless I stole a can of food without permission which would get me in trouble or limit my own family’s food intake. Working with kids now, I can see that schools do a lot more to encourage kindness in different ways like certificates for different acts like sharing or holding the door open. From my current perspective, throughout adulthood I have encountered several workplace fundraisers with similar motives for raising money or food for people that need it. While this is great and makes an awesome difference, I know that I can’t always contribute and that’s a bummer but I don’t think I’m the only one who has experienced that. The financial constraints that everyone faces at some point are a significant barrier to people feeling like they can make a difference or can “spread kindness.” Other barriers I see are feelings of “not having enough time” or just tiredness from daily life–lack of motivation. For me, I have become more motivated and noticed much more benefits to choosing to do my kindness goal then to not.
I want to encourage everyone reading this to make a goal to do an act of kindness, even once a month, small or big and I guarantee that the benefits outweigh any cons or excuses. Spreading kindness makes a positive difference not only for others but for oneself too. Some of the proven benefits to acts of kindness include reduced blood pressure, reduced pain, reduced feelings of isolation, increased” feel-good” chemicals also known as serotonin, and reduced stress associated with lower cortisol hormones. You can set your own goals or look for a calendar that lists ideas for everyday, like this, which could be completed alone or as a group effort such as a work challenge. I’m going to wrap this up with a brief list of ideas you can use but definitely check out the link to the calendars for much more! Thanks for reading, have a great September:)
List of Ideas: – Kindness Rocks – Complete an act of self-care – Text somebody you haven’t talked to in awhile-Pick up Trash – Leave a kind comment on a social media post – Post positive messages on social media or in work areas for others to see – Write a handwritten letter to someone you know or a stranger (there are websites for emailing strangers too) – Smile Stranger – Hold the Door for Someone – Talk to someone a bit more than a brief “How Are You?” like a cashier -Listen empathically and with interest -Use your manners(: