"Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass."
- Feodor DostoevskiWe arrived at a small hotel on Banbury Road in Oxford about 11:30 p.m. Our room was small, barely large enough for a bed and dresser, but cozy. There was a small sink in the corner. The shower and toilet were down a narrow labyrinth of halls.
There is always a mixture of excitement and anxiety when bedding down in a strange place. As a stranger, you know you will never see this place again; few here will ever know you ever came. At such times, you are very conscious of the transience of human experience.
I awoke early and, rather than lie in bed, quietly dressed and made my way down the narrow stairs to the lobby and out the front door. It was chilly, but a hazy sunrise was filling the air with the light frosty colors of a late fall morning. I began walking toward the center of town. Cars were filling Banbury Road, and bundled cyclists passed on their way to early classes. Oxford was waking up to a crisp November morning.
After several blocks I came across a narrow side street, barely wide enough for a single car. There were little shops on either side and at the end of the street a small churchyard. Like a calendar picture, this scene drew me in, and I began looking into shop windows.
Midway down the street, I came across a little green grocer-stationery-post office. The proprietors inside, a husband and wife, were setting up for the day. There was a box of shortbread on a shelf inside that I couldn't take my eyes off. The door was open. I succumbed.
There were no other customers yet, and Hugh and May Kennedy were very sociable, describing what I ought to be sure to see while in Oxford. On a map, Hugh pointed out the Ashmolean Museum, Broad Street, the Sheldonian Theater and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street, where you can climb to the top of the tower and get a spectacular view of the city.
They asked where I was from, and when I told them I was from Utah, they beamed. They, too, were Mormons. Suddenly, it was as if I were speaking to family. In a whole new tone of conversation, we discussed places and people we knew in common.
People who only a few minutes earlier had viewed one another dubiously through a window were suddenly interacting with the perspective, almost, of lifelong friends.
Walking back to the hotel, I thought about what makes the difference between friends and strangers. We tend to compartmentalize our emotions, feeling most comfortable with people who have things in common with us. We become defined by our differences rather than enhanced by them. We identify ourselves by family, school, religion, city, state, nationality or race. We adopt logos, mottos, mascots and creeds and establish boundaries to define our differences. In doing so, we forget the sameness that binds us all.
We live much of our lives trusting in a security net that is really not secure at all. Many of us, for example, will spend the final moments of life trusting the intimacy of an unfamiliar face. It may be an airline stewardess, a nurse in a rest home, or a trucker on a lonely highway.
Imagine being in a strange country - or just across town, for that matter _ and having a terrible accident. None of us knows when we might crash and later die in the arms of a stranger. At such a time, it is not our common experience but the passions we hold in common that support us.
I believe that the degree of security we feel in unfamiliar circumstances depends a great deal upon our ability to trust.
Consider the distrust that existed between the United States and China prior to President Nixon's visit there in 1972, then compare it with the general attitudes we hold toward one another now. Hopefully, the same thing is happening with the Soviet Union as the Cold War winds down.
The Soviets showed unprecedented openness as they acknowledged the devastation that the earthquake in Armenia caused. Americans responded with uncharacteristic concern and support.
James Irwin, one of the astronauts who traveled to the moon, describing the Earth from such a distance, said: "That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart."
That visual image of the Earth, so familiar to us now from photographs, is beginning to influence global consciousness. Our Earth is no longer seen as fragments but as a whole.
Hopefully, we are beginning to trust in our innate capacities as citizens of the world.
-Dennis Smith is an artist and writer living in Highland, Utah County.