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?