Speaking to Strangers

How our everyday actions communicate with those around us

You have a legacy, and you are living it right now—whether you want to or not. The question is, what do you want to leave? … People observe you when you don’t even know they are watching, and what they learn from you is your legacy to them.

Let [it] be a reflection of generosity, selflessness, compassion, and love. Consider the ways that God is working in your life today. How will He continue to work through your example and gifts when you are no longer here? I encourage you to be intentional, not just about your impact here and now, but with regard to your influence for Jesus Christ throughout eternity.

—Charles F. Stanley, Living the Extraordinary Life

I was on vacation a number of years ago in an unfamiliar town, when I found myself traveling alone on a crowded commuter train. I had never even carpooled with a carful of people I knew, much less sat surrounded by strangers all headed to downtown destinations. Yet I kept my tourist map tucked in my pocket and tried my best to blend in.


Trains are an excellent place for people watching but few enjoy being stared at, so I acted as nonchalant as possible while my eyes swept from seat to seat. I noted the variety of business suits, school and work uniforms, and the bright, casual clothes of fellow tourists. I paid attention to the titles of the books being read and strained to listen to the music of others’ headphones. I tried to take in every element of this new experience.

With each stop, the car became more crowded until the aisle was stuffed with people leaning on poles and hanging from ceiling straps. Some struggled for balance as the car swayed on the track, but most easily shifted with what were for them familiar starts, stops, and turns.

Eventually my eyes landed on a young lady sitting by the window toward the back of the car. At the height of a Monday morning rush hour, she sat quietly in her seat, tears flowing down an otherwise expressionless face. There were people surrounding her at every compass point, engrossed in newspapers and novels, but no one said a word to her or even glanced in her direction. With her eyes fixed on her lap, she cried for the entire trip. When we arrived at her stop, I watched from my seat until I lost track of her on the congested platform.

Could the kind words of a stranger have made an uplifting impact? Or would unwanted attention have caused her embarrassment, or annoyance?

I never spoke to her, of course, or managed to catch her eye through the crush of the crowd. But I’ve wondered in the years since, should I have pushed my way to the door as well, when I saw her begin to exit? Could the kind words of a stranger have made an uplifting impact? Or would unwanted attention have caused her embarrassment, or annoyance? Perhaps ignoring her tears was considered thoughtful by other commuters, a way to provide her some semblance of privacy. But maybe I missed an occasion to assure a hurting soul that, even from a distance, she was seen and her pain was noticed, for whatever comfort that may have given.

I am hardly the only people-watcher on this “train.” What sort of details do my family, friends, even strangers on public transportation notice about me, the way I live, the choices I make? I think I would be shocked to realize how often my life, as ordinary as it sometimes feels, speaks to others, and what it manages to say.

Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts—maybe you’ve had moments you look back on and wonder whether you should have done something more or different than what you did. For both of us, I offer this prayer:

Father, what kind of extraordinary mark could I leave on the world, what lasting effect might my life make, if I were more in tune with Your still, small voice? You know my destinations, the people whose paths I will cross, and those moments when You want me to get up out of my seat and do something brave, even seemingly foolish. Help me to see the opportunities You give me, and to make the most of each one by reflecting Your generosity, selflessness, compassion, and love. And thank You, Father, for the Spirit-led people You’ve placed in my path so I, too, could witness these compelling facets of Your character. We praise You for how powerfully and beautifully You are at work in the everyday world. Amen.


Illustration by Adam Cruft

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