Iím sitting at LAX waiting to fly from LA to San Francisco, and across from me, a man is talking on the phone and weeping.† He is holding his face in both hands, full on sobbing, chest heaving, gulping hiccups, trying to catch his breath between tears. I can only wonder what the person on the phone has just said. Did his mother just die of a heart attack? Did his girlfriend dump him for his best friend? Did he lose the job that pays the bills for his three kids? Did the jury decide to send him to jail?† Did his son just commit suicide? Has there been an earthquake or tornado or tsunami that destroyed his hometown? Did his wife just miscarry? I canít help but wonder. I find myself tearing up. There but by the grace of God go I. My phone could ring. Everything could change with one phone call.
I’m trying not to watch him.
And Iím not alone. Iím surrounded by people who are ignoring him while he cries openly.† How many feel uncomfortable by his freely expressed sorrow? And why are all of us sitting here, pretending that another human being isnít suffering alone? Why doesnít someone get up and give this guy a hug?
Do we think we might embarrass him if we let on that heís upset? Have we become so hardened that we donít even notice the sorrow in another person? Are we so disconnected from our humanity, so inward-turned, that weíve lost all sense of compassion? It makes me sad for what weíve become. I have to wonder — where is the love?
How many of you have had similar experiences? Have you witnessed sorrow in another person and longed to comfort that person- but didnít?† I know I do it all the time. †Clients and people who attend my workshops tend to do a lot of crying. I have Kleenex boxes all over my office. In the past, when people cried, I would rush over to hug them, shoving tissues at them, and asking them whatís wrong. Then someone with experience working with people in pain told me to stop. She suggested that my officious niceness might make the individual feel that itís somehow not okay to cry, that their tears are making me uncomfortable and should be wiped away. And thatís not how I want people to feel. I want people in my life to know that itís okay to feel your feelings, that I donít need to ďfixĒ whatís gone wrong, that Iím here, waiting with a hug, but I donít want to discourage the full expression of emotion and experience.
Then what should I do?
But if I donít hug, offer tissues, and lend a listening ear, what should I do? Nothing? Should I — like everybody else here at this big city airport — look the other way and protect this gentlemanís privacy? Should I turn off my humanity and behave in a socially acceptable way — by keeping silent? I honestly donít know. I struggle with this kind of thing.
The woman who told me to stop being so overly comforting suggested that the best thing I can offer is my presence, my ability to just be with what is happening, to radiate the sense that what they feel is true, to bear witness to it, without interfering.† Iím still confused about this. If I just sit here and radiate presence, am I being compassionate to my fellow human being? Or am I just playing it safe?
Out on a Ledge
One day, I was hiking and I saw a woman I knew out on a ledge, right on the precipice of a cliff. She was holding a phone to her ear and it was obvious from 100 yards away that she was in deep agony. She was leaning over, bent at the waist, her head between her knees. And she was wailing. I could hear her from far away. She teetered around like she was drunk and then she fell to her knees and put her head on the ground. I didnít know what to do. Should I keep on hiking? Should I see if she needs help? Did I need to talk her off the ledge? I stepped towards her. Then I stepped back. Then I turned my back on her and kept on walking.
An hour later, I was hiking back to where I started and she was still there, still kneeling on the ground, still resting with her head on the ground. I couldnít walk past her twice. So I went up to her, touched her shoulder from behind, and made eye contact with her.† Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. We just stood there, awkwardly for a few minutes. I didnít want to be intrusive, but I also didnít want to ignore my neighbor. We didnít say a word, but I reached for her hand and held it, and she squeezed it. We stood that way for a while, and I prayed that God would hold her. She didnít say anything, so I didnít either.† After a bit, I let go of her hand and walked back home. When I saw her a few days later, she said, ďThank you.Ē And I nodded.
A few weeks later, I encountered a similar situation. I witnessed someone in pain, and I offered physical comfort — a touch on the shoulder, a hug — but the person I approached stiffened when I touched her. It was clear she didnít want to be touched. I felt bad.† I apologized and left her in silence.
So Iím not sure what I should do with this man across the aisle from me. But Iím going to go with my gut. I am approaching him. We just made eye contact. My gaze tells him, ďI know youíre hurting, and Iím here for you if you need it.Ē He gives me a little nod of his head. I have to go now because theyíre boarding my plane, but as I pass by him, I touch his arm. He looks up at me, wipes his eyes, and smiles a little half smile.
I just canít ignore the fact that when other people feel deeply, I feel deeply. When they cry, I sometimes find myself misting up. When someone laughs a giant belly laugh, I giggle. When I see someone filled with righteous anger, I want to rant with them. I guess this makes me empathic, but it also makes me human. Donít we all feel that way to some extent? Isnít it good that we feel this way? We donít want to become so immune to the feelings of others that we routinely just avert our eyes when we witness human suffering. Or do we?
What do you think? How do you respond when people in your life experience profound emotion? Does it make you uncomfortable? Whatís the best way to handle these situations? Do tellÖ
Feeling compassion for my fellow humans,
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of†OwningPink.com,†Pink Medicine Woman coach, motivational speaker, and author of†Whatís Up Down There? Questions Youíd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.
Learn more about†Lissa Rankin here.