I see you. I see your pain and I acknowledge you are hurting.
In any other circumstance, he would have seemed very intimidating. Muscle bound, tight shirt, tight pants, gold chains, dark skin, crew cut and well over 6 foot tall. Probably not someone to run into in a proverbial dark alley. But right here, now, he wasn’t an intimidating presence.
The airport departure lounge was getting busier as I sat reading my book, waiting on my flight to be called. I was early. I like to be early. The noise around me was increasing, and even though I wasn’t particularly paying attention, I was sensing the busyness increasing.
But something caught my ear, or my senses. I looked up curiously. Then I saw him. He was sitting on a windowsill a few metres from me. My eyes were drawn to him, no-one else. In the dozens of people in my view, I saw only his face.
It was covered in tears and he was talking or more correctly, sobbing, into his mobile phone. He was distraught. Sobbing uncontrollably.
No, not today, not right now, he didn’t seem intimidating.
I then took a moment to have a look around at the dozens of people around me. It was obvious that if not all, then most of them, had noticed this man’s tears. It was hard not to.
I must admit, that my first reaction when I saw him, subconsciously or habitually, was to get my head back down into my book as quickly as I could. Don’t let him see that I saw him. Don’t let him see that I saw him in his distress, in his tears….being a human. Heaven forbid that should happen.
Wait, what am I doing? I questioned myself, admittedly, keeping my head down in my book. Why am I turning away from this man, from this fellow human being, clearly in distress, in emotional pain? What is it that scares me so much that my first reaction is not compassion or empathy, but avoidance? A strong urge to turn away from him and his pain, a strong urge to not see this.
I tentatively looked up, he was unmoved still sobbing, tears streaming down his face. I turned my head to look at my fellow transiting humans. All of them had their heads down and were doing exactly the same as I was – turning away from, instead of turning toward, another human being’s suffering. Why do we do this? Do we think we’re going to catch it – like it was some contagious virus? If he catches our eye does that mean that we need to ‘do’ something, to take some sort of action? Yep best to keep our heads down and pretend it’s not happening, pretend we don’t see it.
And still he sits, sobbing, uncontrollably, while I contemplate my navel – so to speak. All of us, for our own reasons, wanting this inconsolable grown man to not be in our presence, so we don’t have to deal with it. It’s making us uncomfortable.
WHAT THE F%$#? Aren’t we human beings who have all, at one stage, sat like this man, in our grief, our sadness, crying our hearts out? Distraught. Have we been unfortunate enough to do this in a public place, in front of many strangers who, for all intents and purposes, don’t even see us?
Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken the packet of tissues from my handbag and was walking through waiting passengers, across to the man. I put my hand on his shoulder. He looked up with a set of dark brown eyes that, in their swollen redness, were the saddest eyes I had ever seen. I said to him “I see you. I see your pain and I acknowledge you are hurting”. I placed the tissues in his hand, barely holding back the tears myself, squeezed his shoulder, and walked away.
But in fact, I never uttered a word. I just put my hand on his shoulder, he looked up at me, and I gave him the tissues. Then I walked back to my seat. But in doing that, I said “I see you and I see your pain and I acknowledge you are hurting”.
I sat back down and immediately wished I’d kept one tissue for myself – because I needed it. I cry easily, and some years ago, I stopped giving a shit about that. I am an emotional person, I care and yes, I cry a lot. But I also laugh a lot too.
With little to do now, I put my head back in my book while I waited for my flight to be called.
I was shocked from the depths of my book some time later. Flights were being called, people were moving around me. Two rough hands grabbed my face gently and lifted me off my chair. He placed his forehead on mine and held my head in his hands against his, for what felt like minutes. He said to me “Thank you for noticing me. Thank you for seeing me”. Tears were coming from both of us now. After a while, he leaned back, squeezed my face with his big dark skinned hands, and left – I suppose to catch his plane.
But in fact, he never uttered a word. He just held my face to his, our foreheads together. In doing that, he said “Thank you for noticing me and for seeing me”.
I looked around and noticed my fellow passengers, staring, back and forth from me to him as he walked away. I hope they were thinking that next time, maybe next time something like this happened, they would take some small action, if only to remind themselves, that after all, they’re human too. But I don’t know what they were thinking.
Friends of mine have referred to what I did as a Random Act of Kindness. I don’t see it that way. I see it as honouring another human being. Doing unto others and all that. I see it as, well, basically I had no option. I simply couldn’t sit there and pretend I didn’t see him, that he didn’t matter to me. What if that was someone I loved. I would hope that someone would give them some tissues and see them, and acknowledge their pain.
That’s all we have to do – it’s not our journey, we don’t have to travel it for others, or fix them, but if we can provide some comfort for them along their journey when the going is rough, then we will, one person at a time, make a difference.
If I ever find myself in a public place in immense sadness, I hope there’s someone who notices me, who might even have some spare tissues. It might even be you that notices me.
“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi