Of all the rules that we set down to govern boys, few work as poorly for me as the warning, Don't talk to strangers. I first remember giving in to this temptation when I was about seven or eight. The stranger was a man whose yard my pals and I were cutting through as we were trying to circumambulate the lake I lived near. The stranger came out, and he had a wonderfully bright smile, and asked us where we were going -- a not inappropriate question, I thought, since we were traipsing in his property. At first none of us boys responded -- he was a stranger, after all, and we had all been taught not to talk to strangers, even ones with big happy faces. Then, observing our silence, the man said, perhaps merely as a private joke, "I guess you boys must be like Diogenes with his lantern, looking for an honest man."
This was the point that I forgot all about the Don't talk to strangers rule. I asked who Diogenes was, and the man explained to me that he was a famous Greek philosopher, and thereafter I was hooked. My stranger, as it turned out, was just a kind-hearted man who liked to talk to boys who asked such questions when he said such things. (Indeed, if you wish to discover the ultimate impact of this childhood encounter, you will discover my own interpretation of Diogenes in my Policy Review article, The Cosmopolitan Mirage.)
I thought of this story when I read about eleven year old Brennan Hawkins, the Boy Scout who went missing for four days in the wilderness of Utah, wandering hither and yon in search of the Boy Scout camp that kept eluding him.
According to the report on the news, Brennan says that he had actually spotted a group of people horseback riding in his vicinity, but that instead of yelling out for help, he had instantly hidden himself from their view. Why? Because Brennan had been told by his parents, who obviously meant well by their advice, never to talk to strangers, and seeing that the people on horseback fit this description, he stuck to the precepts that had been instilled in him, and made not a peep.
Luckily Brennan eventually became desperate enough that he abandoned the Don't Talk to Strangers rule, and thereby saved his life. Or, to put it more correctly, he permitted some of the kind-hearted strangers who had spent the last four days looking for him to save his life, which is exactly what these kind-hearted strangers had all been desperately hoping that they would be able to do. What greater joy can a person have than rescuing a hungry and frightened child?
One of the most striking characteristics of the American character is our intense desire to pitch in and help out people that we do not know personally -- people who fit the description of being strangers. Whenever kids go missing -- or even runaway brides who go on to write bestsellers --there is an immediate outpouring of active support from those who hear about the story, and who have no other motive than sheer altruism.
Several years ago, I watched one of those 911 real life rescue shows in which a man had chanced to see a child fall into a reservoir in the middle of a raging flood. He immediately, and without so much as a moment's deliberation, jumped in the heaving surge to try to save the boy from certain death, and he succeeded. Later, when asked the question, Why did you risk your life for a boy you didn't know from Adam?, the man seemed genuinely stumped to come up with an answer. He had shown himself to be a first-class hero, and yet heroism was the last thing on his mind. He had only one instinct, and that was the profound urge to save a stranger's child -- and that was all he knew about his own psychological motivation. "I don't think I'm a hero," he said, "I did what anybody else would do in my place."
Like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, we Americans could not have survived without the considerable kindness of a multitude of strangers. Brennan Hawkins owes his life to the many strangers who cancelled their normal plans for the week in order to dedicate themselves to rescuing him.
The crime of those few people who give a bad name to the word stranger is not simply a crime against the individual children that they abuse; it is a slander against all those good-hearted men and women who genuinely wish to be of service to other people's kids, and who are willing to devote their energy to helping them in any way they can -- even at the risk of their lives, as in the case of the 911 hero.
If only there was some way to teach Brennan to tell the difference -- and to make him understand that there are far more kind-hearted strangers in this world than those who have no heart at all.