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Are We All Closer Than We Think?

white rat on top of tripod

Photo by SMercury98 on Flickr

This man injects things into rats – I said to myself as I passed his open door. We have nothing in common and he’ll never appreciate my poem.

However, I’d been wandering up and down the empty corridors of the 8-story Psych building for over an hour, trying to give away a basket of wine and cheese (and an original poem about my heart’s deepest truths) to a perfect stranger. Returning to his door, I thought: this is the last person I’d wanna gift this to – maybe that’s the whole point?

That choice – to reach across the threshold of our (seemingly) irreconcilable differences – would live within me for years, blossoming 16 months later into a gift of its own. But about that later.

“Oh, you brought me some wine,” he quipped when he heard my barely audible knock.

“Maybe,” I said, flushing with embarrassment and hope.

Telling me he was “intrigued” by the offer, he invited me in “for 10 minutes.”

As I finished reading him my poem about what I love and value, the Rat Man (as my friends later lovingly dubbed him) sat still for a long moment, breathing, his eyes shiny and intense.

At his urging, I explained the last stanza: Dominic Barter’s gift of moving toward conflict, which had changed my life and world-view irrevocably, the minute I heard it spoken. “He had me from hello,” I half-joked, half-confided.

“Yes, I too have a good friend in Brazil who pushes and inspires me,” The Rat Man shared, a twinkle in his voice. “His name is Ivan Izquierdo. He writes wonderful fiction and is also a human rights activist and pacifist.”

“A fiction writer and pacifist?” I echoed. Did the Rat Man really like someone who wrote “stories” and cared about non-violence?

“Oh yes. His writing has won Brazil’s version of the Pulitzer Prize. What is most wonderful, though, is the trouble we get into when we’re together. He loves to play and push the edges of things, like your friend Dominic, maybe?”

I listened, marveling, as The Rat Man shared of how he and Ivan, during one of his frequent pranks, almost got shot by a guard while trying to cross from East to West Berlin. Then, riding on the wave of merriment, I told of how I was taken for a desperate salesperson – or worse – by stranger after stranger, as I tried to give away my basket of gifts.

An hour later, floating down the corridor among echoes of our warm farewell, I thought:

Maybe what really separates us is not our ‘seeming differences’ – but our fear of sharing what we love and value most – across the chasm of our un-knowing?

Little did I know that one and a half years later I would embark on a 52-week journey to explore that question with nothing but a blank notebook, a black pen, and a lot of hutzpa.

Though this Quest is a personal one, I’d love and value your company along the way.

If you’re moved to reach across the chasm of our un-knowing and let me know you’re out there you can do so via Comments (below), e-mail (elainecure[at]gmail[dot]com, or Twitter [eshpu].


Creative Commons License
Talking To Strangers by Elaine Shpungin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in academic articles,, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her weekly Restorative Tips newsletter has more than 700 subscribers and can be found at

11 responses »

  1. loved reading this……….;-)

    Gives me a sense that I am part of this energy of giving and moving towards conflict

    Thanks much Elaine!

    • Mmmm. I love hearing this. It gives me a sense of being part of a community of people who care about what I care about! Thanks for sharing.

      • Hi Elaine. My friend Nini shared this with me. I had always lived a life of, “calm down” whenever there was upset or conflict. Over time I learned if I would allow myself to escalate – often when I was alone – i would naturally clarify what was bothering me – or what I felt I needed or wanted. I then came to realize if others will allow themselves to feel, and express if needed, the emotion they are feeling, a damn would break and out would come clarity. I am now the odd person that knows when people are getting upset, or when i’m getting upset, soon….soon we will all be finding the pony under the pile of horseshit 🙂 Thanks for your poem that encouraged me to clarify something for myself. Heide

        • Thank you so much Heide. I am glad the poem moved you. And I resonate with that sense of faith that moving into conflict is a gift (or will turn out that way soon) – even though I still find it scary most of the time – and still have the old, habitual desire to hide instead. 🙂 Very glad to have your company!

        • Aug20 Watercolor, to quote my architecture profsseor, is a temperamental medium. I can attest that it is extremely difficult. It looks great though for first time. I’m just about to start my fourth semester with watercolor and I still struggle.

  2. Elaine, I really love this !!!!!!! You`re a gutsy girl, and I admire this kind of pushing ones edges !!! Lol and a big hug :-))

  3. A fabulous post and an inspiring journey.

    I agree that it’s not our ‘seeming differences’ that are the problem. It does takes courage to reach across to one another and to move toward conflict, yet the insights and rewards are so worth it!

  4. Evelyn, thank you for the heart-felt words and the support on this journey.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog ( and am savoring the overlap in how we approach conflict and human connection.

    I am particularly enjoying all the resources you write about in the areas of Forgiveness, NonViolence and Conflict transformation (and plan to return and explore those more). Very happy to be taking this journey in your company.

  5. I’m here, I’m intrigued by your posts and hope to learn from you. Particularly the resentment that flows from compromise. I often feel resentful later for what I have given up to contribute to a child’s well being, though it continues to be my choice in the moment to contribute to the child’s well being. educator/chooser. that’s where I live.

  6. I would like to set up a phone or email consult with you (i don’t have skype capability). I can send a check in advance if you’d like. I need your snail mail and price for a one-hour phone call. You are the first person who has articulated my central life issue right now. I am in the role of your husband in the compromise scenario-furious when what i did for a child isn’t appreciated, and i also see how the child didn’t get what he wanted either! I think you might be able to hold space to help me connect to this (i can feel my jackal thinking that attending to the child’s needs is the “right” thing to do) –I’d like to increase my spaciousness around the issue. So I could develop more strategies for my life. If you don’t want to do phone, I’d be willing to try email consult.


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