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Talking to Strangers

By Peter M. Shane

Ah, yes A July weekend with a friend in Cambridge Time to see what the city is like without the turbulent crises of fall-through spring Harvard life. A chance to do the things for which there was never quite enough time during the school year. Walking about aimlessly, peering into windows talking to people.

Two years ago as a freshman in his first semester at Harvard I thought that guilt was what the city of Cambridge was all about I'm convinced I bought more copies of the Phoenix. The Black Phanther Challenge and Muhammed Speaks than anyone else in my class. Spare change for street people seemed like the biggest part of my budget. There was no way to say "No" After all they all looked hungry the hawkers the campaigners and the transients I-from Long Island from suburban from the white middle class-yes I was well and guilt ridden. My roommates and I put up an army deserter stuck in Boston for a weekend. He ripped off one of our blankets. We turned our collective cheek. and I put up an army deserter stuck an Boston for a weekend out collective cheek.

the following two years were long enough for me to undergo "urban desensitization". In respective walls through Harvard Yard at three in the morning and a vigorous intellectual discipline of Marx. More importantly the simple days today bombardment of demands. No to strangers but to ignore most of their demands altogether.

Thus the relaxed weekend this summer that I spent in Cambridge was devoted to some systematic reworking of my desensitized state. The idea of conversation, not neurotic or guilt-ridden, but curious, honest, and friendly, appealed to me. When a follower of Krishna, siting serenely in Forbes Plaza, asked my friend and me to talk, I accepted the offer willingly despite my customary estrangement from his religiosity.

Did we have question, he wanted to know, or should be talk simply about what he was doing. Having no idea of where our questions should begin, we allowed him to start his monologue. He wasn't surprised and began lecturing eagerly.

The living world, he informed us, was composed of two parts, human and beasts. Most people mistakenly assume all anthropomorphs are human. "Beasts," he explained, perform only four functions. They sleep. They eat. They mate. They fight. There are people, he insisted, whose lives encompass no more than these four aspects. They lack genuine self-awareness and seek survival only for the sake of continuing these elementary activities.

His theory went on to explain that "humans" are people who question. Humans look around at their world and want to know why it exists. Why they were made part of it, and to what end they are heading. To get this information, humans trust different authorities. Some trust NASA to tell them that the U.S. has put men on the moon. Some trust newspapers to report other peoples words and activities. The most insightful humans have another authority to explain existence and to guide their lives. That authority is God.

He continued to tell us of people who walk by him without interest and of some who even torment him. These are the beasts who can face human inquisitiveness only with indifference or hostility. The questioning of others interferes with their own beastliness.

At that point, a family approached and asked for tickets to a free vegetarian feast to be hosted by the Krishna community. The ascetic gave the tickets gladly, smiling at the family as it strolled away. He observed how obvious it was that he had just dealt with humans and not with beasts; they were sensitive, warm, and compassionate people. I had observed only their friendliness and their desire for free food.

Returning to his lecture, he told us that, of course, some people were more highly developed in their "humanness" than others. The highest plateau of "humanness" is reached by the Spiritual Master, under whose guidance and instruction the community lives. The Spiritual Master defines terms and answers questions for his students. He loves his people. We asked the spiritualist exactly what "love" meant. "Love," he replied, "has been defined by the Spiritual Master as giving without asking anything in return."

We could no longer been in silence the hierarchical nature of his explanation. How could he accept the absoluteness of the Master's definitions? What about people for whom eating each day, for example, was such a genuine struggle that religious introspection was, if anything, a luxury? He had said that we can recognize God's intelligence in the pattern of nature and in the existence of things beyond the scope of any single person's time on earth. But, I replied does the existence of a pattern as yet not fully understood demand our positing an extraterrestial intelligence or power? After all, any world in which we lived would appear patterned to us our pattern seems extraordinary only because it is the pattern with which we live. It is no more special or less probably than any other constellation of phenomena. Control over our ability to act within such a design is entirely in our hands--if we possess the strength to see it there.

With passages from Marx's early writings running perhaps pompously through my mind. Krishna's student repeated his definitions calmly and unswervingly. If people were poor or suffered segregation in this life, he told us, it only meant that in their former lives, they had not lived faithfully as loving human beings.

There are moments. I suspect of each person's life in which, in his or her own mind that person seems caught in a melodramatic situation. For me this was one. As I listened, one level of my mind filed through my repertoire of intellectual challenges to the student's theories. Another part of the of me reviewed all the times I'd seen gods invoked by people who refused to acknowledge all people to be equal human beings. Last spring. I helped plan demonstrations with so-called radicals for whom workers were essentially an abstraction, radicals who invoked one thinker or another to justify manipulating the lives of others. It grieved me because I felt their end was good as indeed. Krishna's followers may do good work. So do the Libertanians invoke the individual as God. So do the bearers of tradition invest Harvard with that sanctity.

It is I decided better to be open than to be closed It is better to be receptive to too many demands than oblivious to people's real needs. Yet that openness must not be the satisfaction of one's own needs at the expense of others. It must not for instance, be an expiation of guilt. It cannot be an openness to people as abstractions, but as equals, as humans, and as part of a single system over which no idol presides. The difference in the two attitudes between regarding all who disagree with one's preconceptions as abnormal and accepting people within the rationality and struggles of their own lives--is the difference between perhaps doing good and the chance to do what is loving and right. It is not the difference between good and evil. It is, for all radicals, the difference between arrogance and compassion.

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