September 21, 2007

Why Journalists Must Talk With Strangers

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Journalists talk to strangers. It’s what we do and
 it's important that we do it.

Journalism serves democracy by talking to strangers and by sharing
their wisdom and life experiences with others. This brings strangers
into society’s fold; and it brings us into their fold; which makes us in the end not strangers to each other but familiars.

The practice of talking with strangers strengthens society and demo-cracy in innumerable ways. It evaporates dark secrets that could
fester and explode. It alerts society to potential dangers, and it helps
focus scattered resources on trouble spots when emergencies arise.

At the same time, talking with strangers extracts practical wisdom from all of society’s members and shares that wisdom with all.

Over the past six years, I’ve talked to many strangers who are our fellow American citizens, mostly immigrants from foreign lands – Somalis, Cambodians, Mexicans, Chinese, Croatians, Indians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Uighurs, Anuak, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Laotians, and others.

But the stranger who has made the deepest impact on me as a journalist and as a person – from whom I’ve learned the most – belongs to no modern nation or tribe. He's not even alive, in fact. This made meeting this stranger a bit more difficult but not entirely impossible; it required only more of the same sort of effort needed to open towards a person of different skin color and customs, born in a foreign land.

He is Siddhartha Guatama, a prince-turned-monk who lived in northern India in the 6th century B.C. He is known to history as the Buddha, the formal name he took after experiencing a tranquility of the soul that he spent the rest of his life teaching and passing on to others.

This particular stranger has struck me as so wise -- his life experiences and his teaching so deep and so relevant to our times -- that I’ve decided to spend a little more time as a journalist with him. I want to learn more, and I want to share more of what I am learning from this stranger.

Starting today, alternating with my regular Global Minnesota columns, I’ll start publishing a series of reports about the Buddha’s teachings at The Journalist and the Buddha.

Keeping things simple, the topics I hope to cover include:

• What might this ancient stranger have to say about such modern-day challenges as terrorism, multiculturalism, immigration, identity-politics, corrupt leadership, and religious extremism?

• Does world peace start with individual morality, and if so how can the two be realistically and practically combined? Or is that pie in the sky?

• Western Buddhism is usually about learning how to meditate as a stress-reliever,  without discussion of the Buddha’s ethical teachings. Does that make sense? How can we become moral people, without ever moralizing or preaching?

The Buddha was far from apolitical. He led a large community of sometimes quarrelsome monks; he administered discipline to them as needed; he ordained women as nuns against prevailing social norms; and he gave advice to local kings and generals during times of famine, ethnic violence, epidemics and war. In so doing, the Buddha taught lessons of powerful contemporary relevance.

Avoiding religious cant, the Buddha also defined simple steps that ordinary people can take to address, to ease, and to solve personal problems and global problems.

We can learn from such a stranger.

At least, for a little, he deserves a listen. What have we got to lose?

Copyright @ 2007 The McGill Report