How The Kindness Of Strangers Helped Me Overcome Unimaginable Grief
When the world is broken, how do you start to rebuild it? Where do you find the resources? How do you overcome loneliness and isolation? As we face the collective grief and loss of Covid-19, these questions are not just personal – they are questions that concern us all. When the tally of losses over the past year and a half is so unimaginably huge, it can be hard to know how to start remaking the world. It can be easy, at times like this, to retreat into isolation. But perhaps it is when things are most broken that we most need the courage to reach out and connect with the strangers with whom we share the world. Because in this connection, there is a strange and transformative alchemy.
It was my second morning in Yangon, back in January 2017. I was at a street stall in the marketplace, sitting on a low plastic chair, eating a breakfast of mohinga fish soup. And I was awash with jet lag and grief. The soup was salty and restorative. The jet lag was starting to wear off, but the grief would be with me for some time yet.
It was six months since the death of my partner, Elee, almost exactly a year since her terminal diagnosis with stage four cancer. I had come to Yangon in the wake of her death to rebuild my life. As I ate the mohinga, both unfamiliar and comforting, I thought about Elee and I wondered what the hell I was doing so far from home.
It was Elee’s fault I ended up in Myanmar. Or, if not her fault, she was partly responsible. In her final weeks, we talked about what I would do after her death. I said I had no idea, that I could not imagine life without her. “You should get away,” Elee told me. “Once everything has settled down. You should travel. Go elsewhere. Get some space.”
Then, a week after Elee’s death, when I was getting to grips with a grief so huge and unwieldy I couldn’t see the edges of it, I spotted an advertisement for a job in Yangon. It was a short-term post, teaching humanities and global cultures at a graduate institute. I remembered what Elee had said about getting away and I put in an application.
It was a mad thing to do. I already had a stable job, teaching at a university in the UK, and it seemed crazy to embrace even more instability when my life had just crumbled apart. Concerned friends, family members and colleagues warned me it was ill-advised. Uprooted by grief and loss, why uproot myself further? Wasn’t I just running away?
When I was offered the job, I didn’t hesitate. I emailed my acceptance. I went online and bought a textbook for beginners’ Burmese. Then I handed in my notice at work.
“Emmanuel Levinas argued that in our encounters with strangers, we come into relationships with futures we can neither anticipate nor control. Strangers bring us genuine newness”
Was it running away? The question worried at me, but it didn’t feel like running away. Instead, it felt like an attempt to build some kind of future, now the future seemed impossible.
Grief, the Danish poet Naja Marie Aidt writes, robs us of the future. It is a kind of paralysis that refers only to the past. In the days and weeks following Elee’s death, I was paralysed. The future seemed impossible, but I had a hunch that by taking the job in Myanmar, I might find a way forward.
It was a risk, of course. I couldn’t be sure the gamble would pay off, but it was an opportunity to connect with something different and new, something that didn’t just lock me into grief. And the idea of being a stranger among strangers was an appealing one.
The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that in our encounters with strangers, we come into relationships with futures we can neither anticipate nor control. Strangers bring us genuine newness, rather than repetition of the same old thing. My world was broken and, with Elee gone, I was unable to remake it by my own resources. I thought that perhaps there, in the company of strangers, my life could be remade. Besides, I trusted Elee’s judgement. If she said I should travel, this was good enough for me.
In the ancient world, it was called a peregrinatio, from the Latin “peregrinus”, meaning a stranger, a sojourner or an outsider. It was a self-imposed exile, a journey among strangers, a deliberate act of becoming a stranger yourself. It was a journey carried out in the hope that, in all this strangeness, it might be possible to rebuild the world.
I finished the bowl of soup and thanked the owner of the street stall (“Jay zu tin ba deh”). Then I crossed the road and headed into the first day in my new job.
Over the weeks that followed, I started to find my feet. I went out for breakfast of mohinga or nan bya thouk (noodle salad). I moved into an apartment. It was spartan and too large for my needs. The emptiness made my loneliness feel even more intense.
In the daytime, I taught classes. I had free rein to teach what I wanted, so I drew up a curriculum focused around the idea of hospitality. In our classes, we asked what it meant to be a stranger in the places other people call home, what it meant to welcome others who were strange to us.
We discussed anthropology and philosophy, literature and science. We talked about the rituals through which we connected, about gift giving, about the futures that strangers opened up for us, about the risks these encounters entailed.
My students were brilliant and kind and insightful. And at the time, I was only half aware that I was working through my own preoccupations with the impossibility of the future, with our need and our hunger for strangers when the world is broken.
When not teaching, I sat at my desk, looking out the window at the birds circling over the rooftops, trying not to let my students and colleagues see me cry. Outside work, I took piles of books to tea stalls and studied Burmese. Or, not knowing what else to do with myself, I walked for miles in the heat through the suburbs of Yangon. When I returned to my apartment at night, I lay in bed, curled into a ball and shuddered with tears.
But then things started to change. There is something magical about the encounters we have with strangers. The German sociologist Georg Simmel, writing in 1908, located the source of this magic in the strange combination of proximity and remoteness that strangers bring. In this cocktail of the near and far, Simmel wrote, we connect more fiercely and more deeply than we do with those who are familiar to us. We share revelations and confidences “at times reminiscent of a confessional”. And these revelations and confidences transform us, open up new futures.
“I was apprehensive to be going home, but I was also grateful. Through the strange alchemy of the many encounters with strangers, I had discovered that the future was possible after all”
The months in Yangon passed and the grief continued to tug and pull at me. But slowly, I started to connect. In the 24-hour tea house where I went to read my book and drink sweet Burmese tea, I fell into conversations. They were fleeting encounters, the sharing of revelations and confidences, but they left me feeling lighter.
For Thingyan, Myanmar’s New Year festival when revellers spend days hosing each other down with water and emptying buckets over each other’s heads, I travelled to Loikaw in Kayah state. There, in front of a makeshift stage where performers sang sentimental Burmese songs, a group of revellers invited me to share cups of home-brewed rum and we danced in the street under the arcing spray from the hoses.
I studied Burmese, wrestling with the soft sounds of the language, the music of it, the creaky tones. Then, armed with my rudimentary language skills, I took taxis through town, exchanging stories with the drivers.
Once, I went into a coffee shop to escape the heat and, as I drank my iced latte, a sudden memory, a stray thought, reduced me to tears. The woman at the next table turned round and asked if I was all right. It was the smallest gesture, but it felt weighty and huge. As the weeks passed, my students and my colleagues became friends.
Through all these encounters, the future I had imagined lost came flooding back. By the time the semester came to an end, the rainy season in Myanmar was just beginning. My students graduated and I made my preparations to leave.
Back home, it was early summer, still less than a year since Elee’s death. On my final night in Yangon before I headed to the airport, my students booked a karaoke room at the 24-hour tea house. I invited everyone I knew and I sang “House Of The Rising Sun” loudly and appallingly. As I sang, I thought of the long journey back, returning to the home Elee and I had shared.
I was apprehensive to be going home and heartbroken to leave, but I was also grateful. Through this peregrination and through the strange alchemy of the many encounters with strangers, I found I had not drowned in my grief and, despite all my fears, I had discovered that the future was possible after all.
Now, five years after Elee’s death, I find myself thinking again about this question: how do you rebuild a broken world? Like many questions worth asking, it has many good answers, but one answer is this: when the future seems impossible, when there seems to be nothing but grief and loss, one step towards recovery might be opening the door and saying “Hello” to the stranger who stands on the threshold.