The comfort of strangers

An act of compassion from a woman he'd only just met still moves Jon Bauer years later. In times of trouble, he writes, these moments of connection remind us what it is to be human

In the early hours of 11 July 1999 I lost two very significant people in my life. One of them was my mother, the other was a stranger.

I'd known for a year my mum was dying, and I was dedicated to being there for her when it happened. The hospice promised they'd be able to warn me when the time was close, but they misjudged the signs, so instead of being at her bedside, I was in a stranger's bed.

I understand now that I coped with my mum's long fight against cancer as best I could, that I sometimes drank and slept around. When the unexpected call came, "hospice" showing up on my mobile phone screen, the girl lay in bed and watched me take the news. She saw my reaction, muted as it was after a painful year of expecting the worst. Then we hugged each other as she sobbed. I was too numb to feel anything but her kindness. Months passed and I didn't really look back.

Gradually, I started to think about her more and more, dwelling on her tenderness and the way she'd been there for me at one of the most significant moments you can have – the way she'd expressed what I'd been unable to at the time. But it's been 13 years now and my quiet fascination with her hasn't abated.

My mum was ill for a whole year, a year in which there were countless acts of kindness offered by her friends, family and neighbours – people with whom I had a history. This girl didn't do anything miraculous.

So why is it a stranger I want to see again and yet I've lost touch with every single one of my mother's friends and family, those neighbours? I'm not alone in experiencing this seemingly disproportionate reaction. Many of us have a story about a kind stranger – a moment where at a critical time, or even just a mildly stressful or lonely one, someone stepped from the shadows and did something.

Not necessarily anything heroic or dramatic, but because they're strangers and they act at a particular moment their kindness takes on extra significance.

Jane was in Thailand when the tsunami hit: "There was a rush of survivors to higher ground, and I remember all of us were sleeping out in the open in tight rows, all of us strangers, and yet all of us holding hands. Those few days after the tsunami I felt like I was falling in love over and over again, with everyone I met. Every connection was heightened and intense."

But the experience doesn't have to be life-or-death in order to have significance, as Liz's story highlights: "I'd forgotten I was taking antibiotics and therefore found myself very drunk on very little. I was desperate to get home and flagged down a mini cab. When it was time to pay, the man told me he wasn't a cab but that he'd known I'd get into a car with anyone. He refused payment for what was a sizeable journey. I find it easy to idolise him, as well as imagine some of the awful things had someone else come along."

Often there's an interpretation of serendipity in the actions of strangers. My friend Carl also lost his mother, but her sudden deterioration meant she was unconscious in a hospice before they'd discussed her death or last wishes. "A lady (Gill) arrived to visit saying she was a recent acquaintance of Mum's – I took the opportunity to go out for some air. Before Gill left she gave me her phone number. Mum died that night, and after the exhausting calls to friends and family, something made me phone Gill. It turns out that she and Mum share the same birthday, 27 September, which is also my birthday. Critically, Gill is the vicar of a local parish church and she told me Mum had sat on a bench and got talking to Gill only days before, communicating to this stranger that the church would be a nice place to be laid to rest. Mum's buried there now, close to that very bench, and every year I go to see her on our birthday and have lunch with Gill – so I still get to wish someone happy birthday on my birthday, as I always did with Mum," he said.

I've fallen short of wandering up Burntwood Lane in Wandsworth and going into that block of flats on the right near the park, to see if my stranger still lives there.

If I really tried, maybe I could track her down. (Perhaps this article is a passive attempt.) I'm not sure what I'd say if I did find her, though I've imagined it many times. There'd probably be the tears I couldn't shed on the night. I know she must remember me too. It was such a raw and real moment. She behaved with more purity and beauty than I did, and it wasn't her mum who was gone.

I happened to be in London for the 7 July bombings, round the corner from Kings Cross. I remember the faces in the office when there was that unquestionable bang. Our pressing work and deadlines were instantly meaningless, everyone either went home, or if the closed transport networks made it too hard, they piled into the local pubs.

London isn't exactly open and friendly but that day there were unprecedented levels of eye contact and conversation between strangers. Yes the day was tragic, but for those caught up on the sidelines it was memorable also for the way it blurred the imagined boundaries between us. And it was impossible not to wish it could always be like that.

In rural Alaska people don't lock their homes. When they're away, especially in winter, they don't just leave them unlocked, they prepare a fire ready to be lit in the hearth, and stock the cupboards with food and water. I remember an Alaskan seeing my surprise at this and saying: "It's not like where you live – we still need each other here."

Perhaps this is why a stranger's kindness resonates so much? In cities and suburbs, more so in affluent countries, day-to-day survival isn't an issue any more (although it doesn't always feel like that). We don't physically need one another in order to live now. And without needing one another, we're not properly connected. Where would the connection come from? Hence the growing sense of isolation.

Alaska made me realise we lost meaning once our survival was secured. Danger or survival is like the Higgs Boson, that unseen force that gives our life its meaningful shape. The struggle for survival is the meaning and if your survival is even moderately in question, that ties you to others around you. It forces you to team up with them; depend on them; serve them. Real or imagined danger connects people and our connection to others is scientifically proven to be the pinnacle of experience.

To me it's no surprise that those moments when a stranger's actions become imprinted on us are typically at a time when our survival is called into question. Even if it's just a sense of our emotional survival under threat. Like when your mum has just died. It's in this emotional need and another's kindness, that we find connection. But there's something more magical about experiencing it with a stranger. So we carry that stranger's kindness everywhere we go.

Contact Jon via jonbauerwriter.com if you think you know his stranger. Jon Bauer is the author of a novel, 'Rocks in the Belly' (Serpent's Tail, £11.99)

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game