What do you do when you’re a socially shy introvert who has spent 80 years of your life avoiding strangers and trying to fade into the background when you couldn’t? You continue playing the hiding game until the world convinces you it needs something from you that can’t be delivered from behind a mask of invisibility.

For me, the decision to do something different was prompted by a routine sequence of events that occurred three years ago, in the spring of 2017. The first was on a crisp April morning when I needed to run some errands and had taken a break from the editing job I was working on (editing being an occupation kind to introverts). I needed to pick up a few groceries at the local market. Routine stuff. Get it done; get home. Hit and run.

But this time, something different happened. As I approached the store entrance, I noticed a man sitting slouched against the wall a few feet from the door: indeterminate age, a weathered face partially obscured by a long and scraggly beard, a motley assortment of ill-fitting clothes on a thin body. My gut tightened and my heartbeat ratcheted up a notch as an urge to acknowledge him in some way arose. As was typical for me at the time, fear prevailed, and I reflexively turned away to avoid making eye contact as I hurried past him and into the store.

While I briskly walked the aisles adding the few things I needed to my grocery cart, my gut continued to churn as my heart and mind carried on a debate.

Why didn’t you stop and ask if he could use a cup of coffee or a sandwich? Or maybe offer him money so he could buy what he wants? Because I’d have to interact with him and I don’t know what to say. I even have trouble talking to people I know. What do you say to a street person?

Imagine it was one of your sons or grandsons sitting there. Would you be so quick to dismiss him and walk away? I don’t even want to think about that. It’s too painful.

But you could at least have made eye contact and acknowledged his existence. Maybe even smiled.

I was only half present as I checked out my purchases, the inner dialogue continuing to absorb my attention. My mind was further occupied anticipating a second walk past the man who was the source of my agitation when I left the store. But when I walked out, he was gone. There was no sign of him in the parking lot. Nothing to indicate he’d been there at all.

One more bypassed opportunity to extend a small kindness to people I encounter every day as I go about my business. One more time I’d let fear override my impulse to acknowledge those I share the world with–even if it was only with a smile.

An Unexpected Consequence

Three years ago I was feeling the sadness and guilt of bypassing a homeless stranger outside a local supermarket without offering even a smile. Two years later I sat beside a stranger on an airplane and in the course of the three-hour flight developed a relationship with him even though we didn’t speak the same language.

What happened in between those two events is what my book Smiling at Strangers: How One Introvert Discovered the Power of Being Kind, scheduled for release this fall, is about.

When I began my project to connect with strangers in everyday life situations, my intent was to provide what I felt was a needed service to acknowledge others with whom I share the planet. I had no anticipation of benefiting personally. Yet, the process of repeatedly challenging my story about being unable to go first in engaging strangers inevitably produced a new, empowering story about who I was–and am–and what I can do.

Bottom-line Secret

It’s all story.

Imagine a dog chasing its tail around and around in a tight circle, getting nowhere. That’s us. Except we’re not chasing our tails, we’re chasing our tales. Tales about our life and our world. Tales about other people who share that world. Tales about what we can and can’t do.

Our task is to remember that we are more than our tales. To not identify with them as “me.” To not tell ourselves, “This is who I am.”

Being different in the world required changing my story about myself to one that was empowering rather than self-defeating. This is no easy task, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s essential.

Who Are You Becoming?

Who would you be if you told yourself a different story about who you are? What would you do that you think you can’t do now?

Maybe smile at strangers?

“Ultimately, work on self is inseparable from work in the world. Each mirrors the other; each is a vehicle for the other. When we change ourselves, our values and actions change as well.” –Charles Eisenstein