The Kindness of Strangers

May 10th, 2014

Or, Strangers on a Plane.
In this case, I was the stranger. It was a return flight from a business trip. I had an aisle seat (my preference). Our row was full. We were three women sitting there shoulder to shoulder. Midway through the flight the apparently happy composed woman in the middle seat started to cry silently. I noticed some silent nose blowing and silent wiping of eyes. A pause. Then silent sobbing.

At the same time that I was amazed at her mastery of silent crying I felt moved to extend myself to her. I said very quietly, “Can I help?” So quietly she could have pretended not to hear me. She could have given a nonverbal cue to me to ignore her. Instead she spoke. She said, “I’m going to get a divorce next week.” And then she told me more while I listened sympathetically. She had quite a story. I made a few “coaching” observations. And finally she became calm and composed again.

The woman was very grateful to me and thanked me many times. Frankly I was a little surprised. Often we don’t know what to do when we see distress. There is concern for the person. Will the person react negatively to an offer to assist? Does the person want to be left alone? And, then, are we worried a bit that we will be rebuffed? or that the need will take more than we have to give? That is, we worry for our own emotional safety, too. There is clutter around embarrassment or attributed embarrassment, shame and guilt.

In this case, we were there shoulder to shoulder and would be for another hour. I followed my physical and emotional response and reached out. And I did it in a way that did not assume I was in a position to help. In fact, I didn’t believe I could help except to show human kindness. I did it with an inquiry, leaving her in control of acknowledging me and letting me know if there was a way that I could help her. And it turns out, there was. I remain glad that I chose those words. And will remember them for the future. I had given her the gift of being present for her.

I was rewarded with a quiet taxi ride home with a driver who had no need to talk or listen. When asked, he said he would be working until 3 AM. It had been a very long day for me. My seat mate was now with her daughter who is living in this area. And I was arriving at 11 or so to my welcoming home.

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