Strangers are the meaning of my life. My job is to rush into other countries, or dive into my own, and delve inside the brains of total strangers. As a public opinion analyst sent to do fieldwork on multiple projects in various countries at a breakneck pace, the main challenge is how to do everything fast: I was rushing to catch planes, rushing to different cities and villages, hurrying through hours and hours of people talking – watching streams of words rushing by me. My job then required me to jump into the stream and catch them, to stop everything in order to feel how the people I was talking with feel, and feel it with them for a suspended moment of familiarity – then extract the ideas, put them into new words, write them up and send them on. After that, I'd run on to the next project, often in a different country, city or village without only days or hours in between.
It became clear, without articulating it, that if I was going to be able to successfully to journey into the minds of others, I could not lose sight of myself. With the daily pressure and the profound responsibility, I nearly gave myself over completely – almost.
Perhaps it was a survival instinct; but even when life was running past me so fast, I made a point of saving an hour for my own private running — not towards some strangers whom I had to interview for my job, but for myself.
Sometimes it meant I set my alarm for the middle of the night, even if I was in a place I had never been and did not know, like a remote corner of Bulgaria that was unfamiliar to me in every way. Somehow these runs became a way of preserving my soul.
I hadn't counted on the darkness. Arriving in the town of Lovech the previous day, I'd learned that there was only partial electricity. The information registered only partially, like a fact in an encyclopedia; now I was confronted with the reality.. I stepped out into the murky chill of predawn rural Bulgaria and felt what it means to live without lamplight and not just that: there were no signs, no markers, and for me, still the stranger, no landmarks. All I had were these forty-five minutes and a pair of running shoes to claim something – was it time, space, or some other unknown? – for myself. These were my only paths back to the person who was not a stranger, buried somewhere beneath all the layers of labor and exhaustion.
I stepped out. To my right was a covered bridge, leading to the other side of town. To my left was a road, not sufficiently paved to be considered a street. The darkness was huge and silent but in the moment it took to survey the options, the outline of the road became clearer, perhaps it was the only thing, for a moment, that could be seen. It seemed to lead upward, as if climbing into the mountain. I headed to the left, unsure of what the dark path would mean but somehow I felt I trusted this road. I believed the road welcomed me.
All activity, in a way, can be divided into two types: There's the kind that resides within the boundaries of a single human body or mind, reaching downwards and perhaps uplifting, but remaining inside. It's not exactly a monologue because there is a dialogue with that very self – not in a schizophrenic way, but in the way that human beings have of asking themselves questions, Socratically, to play out the truths that we know are inside us the deeper we go.
Then there are the activities that burst outward, that reach out and embrace someone else – a human being, a pet, a tree. These are the activities of communication, that great basis of life: talking, laughing, fighting, eating, singing, touching, showing, screwing up or being ridiculous. Human nature is biased toward the latter – we are built, according to all the psychological studies – to be social.
Yet so much of modern life enables aloneness; we can be surrounded by bodies, busy at jobs that purport to need us desperately and command that the cellphones must always be on, the inboxes always open; we can live in the middle of a dense urban space, in an apartment surrounded by many others, on a planet bursting with people, within a family forever intruding; and still be very alone.