The Uniquely American Fear of Strangers

In his fascinating book, The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America, author Mike McIntyre makes this humbling observation:

There was a time in this country when you were a jerk if you passed somebody in need. Now you’re a fool for helping. Gangs, drugs, murderers, rapists, thieves, carjackers. Why risk it? I Don’t Want to Get Involved has become a national motto.

Not only a national motto; it’s a national tragedy. Mike knows of what he speaks: he used to be the guy that wouldn’t think twice about blowing past someone standing on the roadside with an outstretched thumb. He left a comfortable living as a journalist in San Francisco to confront his “fears of life” and walk across the country, relying on nothing but the goodwill and help from strangers he met along the way. What he found is that kindness and generosity can come from the least likely of sources: those with the least are often those who give the most.

This shouldn’t be too surprising though. Those with the least to lose are generally willing to take more risks. Not that helping another person should be viewed as a risk, but the reality is that it usually is. There are, in truth, some people out there who are dangerous and are always looking for ways to rob, cheat, and steal. Sometimes these people are even tooling along America’s highways. It is probably prudent to not make it a habit of picking up hitchhikers or talking to panhandlers in dark alleys, but does this mean that we never should? Mike came to the realization that he was living in fear—of everything:

I’m afraid. I’ve been afraid my whole life. I was born scared. I grew up afraid of the babysitter, the mailman, the birds in the trees, the next-door neighbors’ cat. I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of the ocean. I’m afraid of flying… of the city… of the wilderness… of crowds… of being alone… of failure… of success. I’m afraid of losing an arm. I’m afraid of losing a leg. I’m afraid of losing my mind. Yes, and I’m afraid of dying. But what really scares the hell out of me is living. I’m afraid.

From the day our children are born, we teach them to be suspicious of just about everything. In an effort to protect them, we teach them to be afraid—that there is mortal danger lurking around every corner, that every stranger is a potential threat. Statistically speaking this is not true, but we are Americans; we don’t put much stock in statistics when it comes to our children because there’s always “that chance.” We lash them into cars with 5-point harnesses, don’t let them play with small toys (it’s a choking hazard), and make them wear 7 layers of protection to ride their bikes up the street. We have become so obsessed with safety that we have forgotten what we are being saved from.

Like most, Mike had learned to conceal his fear well, but being afraid gnawed at him. He was tired of living the safe life and decided to do something completely reckless and non-safe: he made up his mind to travel from coast to coast—from the Pacific to the Atlantic—with no money in his pockets, relying completely on the kindness of people he had never met. His story is spellbinding and makes for challenging reading.

Along the way, Mike confronts his fears and finds that while they may be have been justified at times, they were mostly irrational and unjustified. Mike finds charity in places most people would avoid. Overall, he found a new appreciation for his fellow Americans and realized that this country is a much bigger and more diverse place than he ever knew. In other words, the ideas and ideals of the forefathers are still present, but they are being given very little airtime in the national news. Mike went looking for adventure and found America—it is still out there for those who desire it enough to search for it.