Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mary Carey: The caution of strangers

By Mary Carey

Mary Carey
Mary Carey

It was 15 years ago when I found myself in Warsaw, Poland, in need of feminine hygiene products.

This would not be noteworthy if it weren’t for the fact that there were no self-service shelves holding products in the local drug store. Instead, you stood in line and when you reached the counter you asked the gentleman for the products you wished to purchase. He would get them and you paid.

Since I was only going to be spending two days in Poland I hadn’t bothered to learn even basic greetings, let alone names of household or personal products.

I realized I needed a translator.

Standing outside the drug store I tried to engage the female customers before they entered, much like a teenager trying to get someone to buy them a six pack.

I smiled, I smiled and nodded, I smiled, nodded and asked, “do you speak English?” and “Could you help me?”

It is the only time I recall where I was completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and no one would help.

My experience might suggest that strangers aren’t very kind, but might it be something very different?

Did those customers see me and think, “she wants money?” Were they concerned I was trying to scam them? Could I possibly be dangerous – maybe a front for men who were going to hurt them?

Engaging with strangers holds the real possibility of messiness, and aren’t our lives complicated enough?

I was talking to my neighbor, Betsy Fenhagen, about this. Betsy is part of a small group that helps newly released prisoners establish themselves in jobs and homes.

I asked if she was apprehensive about taking on what could be a very messy, complicated situation. She looked at me and in an emphatic tone said, “No! This is life! The chance to help someone – that is life!”

Something in her words and her passionate emphasis made me wonder if perhaps when we avert our gaze we are closing off our hearts, and if in doing that we are constricting our lives.

Could so much anxiety and depression be alleviated if we lowered some of our walls and let others in – even just a little bit?

It wasn’t until college that I saw someone live life with a completely open heart, and it scared me. My friend, Liz, engaged with anyone. If someone was asking us for money she asked them about their life, how they were, did they have family nearby, and she, a poor college student would buy them food. Actually, she would go in to the local fast-food place, talk to the employee, then the manager, asking the same questions, “how are you?” “How long have you worked here?” “Do you like it?” “Do you see that gentleman out there?” Soon she would be introducing the man outside to the employees. He would be getting a free meal and have a warm place to sit.

I witnessed this over and over again and every single time I can acknowledge I would have walked right by the person asking for money. My heart was hard.

Liz and Betsy keep their hearts soft, open and vulnerable to getting hurt or broken. They don’t pass up an opportunity to help, to ask questions, to make eye contact and see their fellow human beings. They are also two of the most joyful people I know.

My experience in Poland, where customers rushed past me through the door, was a good mirror for me. I knew and understood what they were doing because I had done it myself.

Finally, I recognized a woman who worked at the American embassy, so I knew she spoke English. My exuberant greeting at seeing her familiar face didn’t allow her to look away, if she had wanted to. I explained the help I needed, gave her all my money and waited outside. A few minutes later she returned with my purchase and change.

It wasn’t a complicated or costly transaction for her, and yet here I am, 15 years later, writing about it. Countless other kind gestures have been extended to me by family and friends in my lifetime. This was different and still is.

Best wishes for the holidays, and here’s hoping that all of us enjoy a somewhat messy, little bit complicated and slightly more involved 2016.

Mary Carey lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. You can reach her at and on Twitter @maryhelenecarey