Howdy, everyone! Today’s post is an interview with Corey Hudson, founder of Hearts of Strangers, a movement that encourages people to share their life stories to help — and connect with — others. Everyone’s meaningful living path is different, and Corey has graciously shared the trials, tribulations, and successes of his personal journey.
What does “meaningful living” mean to you?
To me, meaningful living means to be driven by your heart, to be true to yourself, to function from a place of love as opposed to fear. Often, we operate in a reactive way because we’re constantly barraged with messages telling us to be afraid, that we’re not enough, that we need more stuff.
When we live in a society that’s fueled upon having stuff and being selfish and greedy, it’s a different approach to think, “How can I help? What can I give? How can I be part of the solution?” That’s what I try to focus on, and that’s when I feel most aligned: when I’m being true to who I am, when I think from a place of love, and when I’m honoring myself.
That’s a daily practice; it’s not something that you arrive at and you’re done. Every day I remind myself to be gentle, forgiving, compassionate, to not live in shame or fear. Having a healthy, loving relationship with myself has allowed me to move through life in a more graceful, forgiving, and compassionate way with others. We’re all in this together.
Tell me about your movement, Hearts of Strangers.
After losing my job during a really debilitating depression and cycle of addiction, I picked up an inexpensive camera. I had a lot of free time, so I hit the streets and took pictures. I shot things we normally wouldn’t take notice of, focusing on the ordinary beauty we sometimes miss because we’re moving so quickly.
I really enjoy inspiring quotes from people like Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, and Oprah Winfrey; I thought it might be good to combine my photographs with other people’s quotes. To get a second opinion, I met up with a friend of mine whose gratitude project inspired me. I asked her what she thought about me creating a Facebook page for these quotes and photos, but she had a different vision: she asked me to photograph people and ask what they were grateful for.
I had never photographed people intentionally before, and to approach them and ask questions? It was a little bit scary. It was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I accepted the challenge, and that became my purpose in the first year or so of my recovery from depression and substance abuse.
In seven months, I photographed and interviewed over 1200 people. Asking what they were grateful for made people reflect on their hardships, loss, and grief, all the pain they’d experienced which made them grateful for who and what they had. The gratitude project was appealing to short, light and breezy interviews, so longer stories weren’t getting published, but after spending an hour hearing someone’s life story, it was hard to see that that content wasn’t making it to the public eye, so I decided to create my own platform.
On a whim, I came up with the title “Hearts of Strangers” and started a Tumblr blog. I parted ways with that gratitude project, but I continued interviewing people. I started out asking people, “What’s your biggest fear?” or “What’s your biggest challenge?” before arriving at, “What’s the most challenging thing that you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing?” That gets right to the core of where they are in their life, or where they’ve been.
The interviews have served as a catalyst for healing, especially for people who haven’t shared their stories before. Though they feel anxious or apprehensive about sharing so many intimate details of their lives, the swaying factor – always – is knowing that their story could help someone else. That’s a beautiful quality we have as human beings: once we’ve experienced pain and suffering, we don’t want to see anyone else experiencing it.
Six or seven months into it, I knew that these stories would be easy to transition from my blog to a book. I wanted my project to be bigger than my immediate, local community of New Haven; I wanted it to be national, and I hope, still, for it to eventually be international. Anywhere there are human beings, there are relatable experiences, no matter what color our skin is, our income, our culture. There are innate things that we experience as humans that no one is immune to, and it’s really important to talk about these issues, because when we silence them, it leads to depression, addiction, and self-destructive behaviors.
Coming back to media and the social climate, there’s this constant message of fear: be afraid of each other. Everyone’s a threat. Everyone’s trying to take something from you. I haven’t had that experience. Even the most intimidating-looking people – when approached with sensitivity, curiosity, and kindness – soften and open right up.
When I connect with people, they feel seen and heard and valued, which are some of our basic human needs. Everyone’s talking and making a lot of noise, but not enough people are listening; when people aren’t heard, that’s when they act out. We need to listen and have meaningful conversations. Hearts of Strangers is a platform for people to let down their guard and be seen authentically, to be accepted, embraced, and understood.
My mission wasn’t to get into mental health with Hearts of Strangers, but everything comes back to taking care of emotional experiences like crises, trauma, pain, grief, and loss. There’s no avoiding those things, so we need to talk about them and acquire healthier coping skills. I’m hoping that, as Hearts of Strangers continues to grow and evolve, it will align with mental health agencies and organizations, gain funding, and continue to be a platform for people to share their stories and find support and resources to continue their journeys.
You said that working with the gratitude project and then transitioning to Hearts of Strangers was very much out of your comfort zone. Do you think meaningful living and coming out of your comfort zone go hand-in-hand?
Absolutely. If you’re living in your comfort zone, you’re not growing. Part of experiencing a meaningful life is challenging yourself. Being willing to experience humility and make mistakes is how we grow and learn. Mistakes aren’t failure; failure is when we stop expanding our horizons. When we close like that and assume we know everything we need to, we may as well have died.
Many of us fall prey to this path that’s handed to us: you need to do this. At this age, you should be here. You should have this and do that. And we don’t really question it. The most important thing we can do is discover who we are and what we’re passionate about, to have the courage to follow that despite other people’s opinions and criticisms. The lens with which we view others has a lot to do with how we view ourselves: when people criticize us, it may be because they didn’t have the courage to pursue their passions; being around somebody who is trying to break through that ceiling is intimidating, and it makes other people look at their own lives in a way that may make them feel trivial.
There are many, many paths, and maybe they all lead to the same place, but it’s your individual journey – who am I to say how you should get there? My wrong turns, if you can call them that, led me directly to where I wanted to be.
Do you have any advice for someone who may be at the beginning of their meaningful living journey?
I’ve found that I can incorporate everything I’m passionate about into one job, but it’s not something I could look for on the Internet. It’s not on Monster jobs or Craigslist. I had to create it myself and trust the process.
Your painful experiences and challenges come to the table with whatever your passion is. Maybe you had a crappy childhood, or you ended up in foster care and you feel like there are loopholes in the system. Let that fuel you to fix that. Be what you needed for somebody else.
Find space in your life to do what you love. A lot of people talk about wanting to be this or that – do it. Start now. That’s how you gain experience.
I wanted to get out of my culinary career which I was stuck in for so many years, feeling trapped. I started taking psychology classes and something clicked. At first, I thought, “I’m an artist. How can I combine art with therapy? Art therapy.” But then I thought, “No, I don’t want to get stuck just doing that. I want to work with people in whatever capacity they feel comfortable expressing themselves.” And now, here I am, doing those things in Hearts of Strangers and my day job as a recovery support specialist. I’m able to utilize every outlet I feel connected to, whether it’s art, cooking, nature, exercise, yoga, meditation, coloring, or music.
Think back to what you enjoyed as a child. As adults, we think our interests were silly or can’t make us money. I had twice as much money as chef, but I was one hundred percent more miserable. The money is secondary. Who wants to show up to a job every day and sit at a desk, knowing your potential and capabilities far surpass it? Not me. Too many people get trapped in that because it’s secure. You can look ahead at the next forty years and know where you’re going to be. I don’t want to know where I’m going to be forty or fifty years from now; that’s part of the adventure. That’s part of meaningful living: if you can see the end point from here, you’re probably not taking any chances.
Life is a process. We’re part of nature; nature has seasons and cycles. I may be at the top of the mountain one day, and at the bottom of it the next, but I’m going to keep moving.
It sounds simple, but putting it into practice is difficult, especially when others say, “Don’t take too many risks.” It’s hard to ignore those voices. Would you give any different advice to people who have identified their passion but are scared to follow it?
Listen to your instinct. There’s a voice inside of you saying, “Take a risk. Take a chance. Do something different,” and a lot of times, because we’re afraid, we don’t. We ignore it and repress it, and we end up suffering and missing out on opportunities. Listen to it. Yeah, it’s scary; you don’t know what’s going to happen, but surround yourself with people who encourage and support you, and who are also taking chances and living from a meaningful place. You’ll find your way.
Take baby steps. Start investing your free time in what you love to do. As you start to feel more alive and surround yourself with encouraging and supportive people, you’ll find a path to where you want to be. It may not look the way you anticipated; have enough humility to start on the ground floor, if you have to. Work your way up.
I found my way in through the back door in my culinary career and my mental health profession. There’s a lot of value to coming in on the ground floor and working your way up. Yeah, we can go to college, get a piece of paper, become book-smart and take tests well, but the real value is in living experience and putting it to practice. Don’t be afraid to start out at the bottom and work your way up.
How can people get involved with Hearts of Strangers?
There are a couple of options. One of the most fundamentally important things you can do is share your story, and you can get in contact with me through any of my social media platforms (linked below).
Donations are always appreciated, because it takes money to generate products and maintain the website. We shot a lot of footage over the past year for a documentary; we’ve started filming interviews. We’re ramping up for a campaign in January 2017 to raise money to process all that valuable content. These are human experiences that we can all relate to and learn something from – I use some of the videos at my day job, so I know there’s a value to it, whether it’s through mental health or education.
Another way to get involved is to volunteer. The audio interviews I collect need to be transcribed for publication, for the archive, and also for future books. People can do that from anywhere in the world, provided they have a computer and Internet access.
I always have shirts and books available, which help raise awareness and funding to continue pushing this movement forward.
Special shout-out to Liz of Daily Warriors — I already had this post planned when she nominated me for her Give a Gift challenge, but her message of spreading love through volunteering is beautiful — and a reminder of the struggles of others this holiday season.
Next in the interview series: Kelsey Connolly, professional dancer!