I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.
‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?
I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.
AJ told me about his childhood in Ghana, his plight as a refugee, and how his abiding faith in God had seen him through to this day. He told me about his dream to start a school for child refugees – a school with a joyous curriculum, so that children from war-torn lands would not suffer impoverished imaginations as a result of their disrupted lives, and could see the opportunities available to them in their new land.
‘Children have spirit’, he told me. ‘We must open their eyes to the possibilities of life, so that their spirit may flow into beautiful activities’.
This sounded good to me. I decided to help AJ out. He didn’t have a business card, but I took his number and walked away. Months later, I realized that I’d never made the call.
We all have a story like this. One day, we say, I met an extraordinary person. While we were different in certain respects, something about this person resonated with me. Chatting with them was fun and inspiring. I felt like if I got to know this person, it might change my life. And it scared me away. We generate excuses. ‘I’m too busy for a new friendship’. ‘I’m too set in my ways to deal with someone from a different background, with different opinions and beliefs’. ‘What am I thinking – coffee with a stranger?’ In short: ‘I am happy as I am, safe in my comfort zone’.
I look back on my encounter with AJ Emmanuel with regret – not just for the lost opportunities it might have offered, but for the fact that, in this instance, I’d failed to live up to my own teaching. Inertia can beat the best of us. Opening oneself to new friends and possibilities is challenging. It is not just the challenge of starting new conversations, which can be awkward enough. It is the challenge of making time for the friendship, and of taking on new obligations and responsibilities. It is the challenge of negotiating differences between new friends and old, or of segmenting one’s life into different groups of friends, acknowledging that the whole group is unlikely to get on.
The difficulty of incorporating new friends into one’s life goes some way to explaining why social networking sites like Facebook are so popular. These sites enable you have hundred of friends and scarcely have to set aside time for any of them. Real friendships are a labour of love – with the emphasis on labour. It is no surprise that we tend to shy away from them.
There is a limit to the number of friends that one can expect to build into one’s life. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has calculated that the size of the human brain indicates that we have evolved to thrive in groups of no larger than one hundred and fifty people. In most cases, our circle of close friends is much smaller than this, depending on our levels of amity. Some people are satisfied with one or two close friends. Others cultivate a wider circle of acquaintances, though there is always a tendency to privilege a core group. A tight knit social circle can make for a comfortable social life. Still, it is important not to let one’s circle of friends become too tight. The security of cliques and gangs can easily become a constraint, narrowing our horizons and limiting the range of powers that we are able to put to use. When change comes hammering at the door, we find that we are unprepared for it. We lack the agility to rise to the occasion and strike out on a new path in life.
I recommend a more ambitious attitude and approach to socialising. This involves learning to live from the heart. We should be open to the chance of friendship in everything that we do. By opening your heart to the people around you, you’ll find you learn important truths about yourself. You’ll learn about your talents, dispositions, and ultimate possibilities in life. You’ll learn about what you are truly capable of thinking, feeling, doing, and being.
I lacked the courage to follow up on my encounter with AJ and convert our conversation into a genuine friendship. Still, I was open to the possibility of friendship between us, so I learned something about myself that I hadn’t appreciated beforehand. The reason that AJ and I clicked and resonated like we did is that we shared a common passion. AJ expressed this passion in his desire to create a school to empower kids and open them to possibilities. This passion resonated in me. I found myself deeply inspired by AJ’s enthusiasm, and I recognized the same enthusiasm in myself. On some level, I had grasped and processed this insight before. But it wasn’t until I met AJ that I grasped it clearly, and saw that it could be central to my purpose in life.
I don’t know what path AJ took in life. I hope that he established his school for child refugees. I know what I did though. I started teaching Philosophy for Change.
Thank you AJ Emmanuel. Meeting you triggered a turning point in my life. Our encounter helped me get clear on a core facet of my person. This has literally changed my life.
This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 4 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.