We live in a world of interaction. We interact through social media and through brief exchanges in a store’s check-out line. We interact during the silent subway commute to the next destination and the brief nod we give to the doorman – we’ve all mastered interaction with one another. However, I think most of us have lost or forgotten the art of encounter.
Interaction necessitates reciprocating actions. You ask me about the weather, and I answer. I bump into you on the street, and I apologize. Interactions are brief and fleeting. They are merely an exchange of pleasantries. But to encounter? That’s next-level interaction. To truly encounter another person is to be sincerely present. It’s genuine interest, authentic concern, and honest vulnerability. Furthermore, it is usually unexpected. A chance meeting with a stranger where you walked away with a new perspective is an encounter. Engaging in deep, life-searching conversation with a friend is an encounter. Personal investment in what someone else has to say is an encounter.
My friend John recently shared a story of an encounter that truly touched me. While serving in a soup kitchen, John introduced himself to a man named Bernhardt. That simple introduction led to a conversation that left both individuals with new insights and perspectives. John told me that at one point, Bernhardt looked at him and said,
“I have no material possessions. I have no money. I have no family left. What I do have is God my Father, Mary my mother, and Jesus my brother. I have faith and love, which is the only thing we can present to God when we die. So I want to ask you… as a homeless man with no attachment to material things, am I really at a disadvantage?”
The question is meant to be pondered. Not everyone will have the same response for Bernhardt, and most may even have different reactions. But for me? When John told me about Bernhardt’s question, I thought about lessons. Think of all the lessons we could learn if we would only truly encounter each other instead of merely interacting. I believe that every person has something to teach and something to learn. We all have a story, and those stories are best expressed through the art of encounter. An unexpected, chance meeting with a stranger where you walk away as a better person. A question that puzzles you, an exchange that makes you laugh, a conversation you remember – these are all a form of encounter. The common thread between them is the simple recognition of the worth of each individual. Every person has dignity, and as such, every person is worth an encounter.
Written by Katie Greenwood, a current intern at the WYA North America office.