I held hands with a Stranger the other day, and I think it may have changed my life.

It was early morning at the gym. Before my coffee. Before my makeup. I was sweating out a set of intervals on the elliptical, resisting the urge to belt out Bohemian Rhapsody and turn my 8:00 a.m. gym call into an episode of Glee. The incline shifted just as I was getting into Brian May’s epic guitar solo, and I got thrown off balance. I clutched onto the elliptical; my heart shuffled to find its bearing, and I realized (after a solid five seconds or so) that I was not holding onto the elliptical.

My right hand was clutching the hand of the man next to me.

He looked as though he was probably a grandfather. He wore a white tee shirt and a cheerful demeanor. And he just continued to stare at me. Laughing.

I scrambled to make words fall out of my mouth to apologize to this stranger, this man, who now clearly knew that my palms sweat when I work out. But I only continued to fuel his laughter. His smile grew wider, tickled over the hilarity of the moment.

“That was the best hand I have held in a long time,” he said.

And maybe I should have been creeped out by the comment. Some of you are probably reading this and thinking “that is very creepy, Hannah.” But, instead, I started to laugh with the man for a few brief moments.

The laughing felt almost foreign to me. As if I had not laughed in weeks.

It was then that I realized I had unintentionally bridged a connection. We had crossed the River that is called Strangers. And I think we are better because of it.

Every single day, we cross paths with dozens of people who are Strangers. We know nothing about them. We don’t know how they take their coffee or what propels them to wake up each day. We could be standing next to them in the supermarket, and we don’t know for whom they are making dinner tonight. Who is not showing up to their table, even though they are praying they will. If they are eating alone tonight.

We are all Strangers.

Perhaps not in our houses or at our place of work, but the second someone walks in with an unfamiliar set of dimples and a walk and talk we have never been introduced to before, we are slipped right back into our spot as Strangers. Designated Strangers.

As I was making my way up to the eighth interval, I found myself still thinking about the stranger with whom I had just held hands. He had wiped off the machine next to me and moved on in life, but I continue to run the interaction through my head. Wondering if he is married. If he met the love of his life. If he was happy in his occupation. If he is happy. All because he laughed, and I laughed, and we basked in the commonality.

You see, we really don’t know enough about Strangers to judge them. We waste so much time carving out our enemies and the people “we don’t like” long before (or if ever) we open our mouths to talk to them. To ask them about their day. To help them work the machine next to us or pick out a birthday card. But everyone we have ever known came tumbling into our lives with the title of Stranger. And for reasons we cannot always remember, we started a conversation. An interaction. A friendly gesture. And we shattered the word “Strangers” into pieces.

We don’t want to miss out on the people with the potential to shake our souls, plant ideas in our heads, and give us memories that won’t soon go away. 

Life is too short to not take up those smiles that say “I know how you feel right now,” pearls of wisdom, and helping hands, even if they are the smiles, pearls, and hands of strangers.

So this is a posed challenge for all of us, to talk to Strangers.

I figure this: We have nothing to lose and a world of knowledge to gain from people we don’t yet know. We may be from very different walks of life, but for a fleeting second, five minutes or a good chunk of our time, we might decide to walk together. And we might be better for that.

And to that man, next to me the other morning, who “saved my life” by keeping me balanced and provided me with the laughter I didn’t know I needed: Thank you. Your hand is the best one that I have held in a long time too.

I would adore hearing from you in the comments below. Is there a moment in your life where you shattered the word Stranger and had a good laugh? Made a new friend? Met someone who changed your life?

Hannah Brencher is a writer, speaker, and creator pinning her passion to projects that bring the human touch back into the digital age. After spending a year writing and mailing over 400 love letters to strangers across the world, Hannah launched The World Needs More Love Letters in August 2011—a global organization fueled by volunteer “letter writers,” now in fifty states and forty-seven countries. She’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Oprah, Glamour, the White House Blog, and is currently a global finalist for the TED2013 Global Talent Search (watch the TED Talk). You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

*Photo by Tim Ebbs.