The Art of Empathy

bampw-black-and-white-bus-girl-sad-Favim.com-403582I almost walked past her, this perfect stranger, but I saw something on her face, in the downward cast of her eyes, that spoke volumes.

“How are you doing today?” I stopped and asked. She had obviously been lost in her own world but I brought her back to a murky present. But she smiled at me anyway, a tired smile, but a smile nonetheless.

“I’ve certainly had better days,” she responded, looking up at me for the first time.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, knowing the answer might be one I didn’t want to hear, but I was saddened by her reply so I asked anyway.

“Well, are you sure you want to hear this?” the perfect stranger asked me, at once both sensitive to my time but also eager to get something off her chest.

“Of course I’m sure,” I reaffirmed.

“My ex has the kids this weekend for the first time by himself, and it’s a long weekend, and I miss them,” she said in a burst, obviously close to tears. I wanted to hug her and tell her that it all gets better time, but I couldn’t guarantee that, and I didn’t want to give her what might have amounted to false hope in the end.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” she continued, wiping a hand across her still-dry eyes as if anticipating the fall of tears still suspended. “It’s just tough.”

I listened to her with a down-turned mouth and a head nod that advertized empathy without being overly saccharine. Again I was overwhelmed with a desire to make everything better. It is probably my biggest character flaw, but I couldn’t change it any more than I could change my skin color.

“But I do understand,” I said, knowing all too well the consequences of divorce from the perspective of someone who has come from just such a broken home. There is the Before and there is the After, and the two don’t look anything alike, except for the late animosity of the Before that bleeds into the early anger of the After. Neither one truly goes away, and it all affects the kids more than parents can even guess.

“I do understand,” I said again, looking directly into her large, blue eyes. They were still brimming with unreleased tears, but her mouth began to turn up, just knowing that someone else understood, that there was another person out there in the world who was there for her. Even if it was a perfect stranger. Even if it was still the middle of her long first weekend away from her children. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make someone else’s life just a little bit better, letting them know that you understand. That you’re there. That you care.

“Thank you,” she replied, honestly, earnestly. On impulse I reached out and gave her the hug I had previously stopped myself from doing. And it felt good, caring for another human being, and showing that I cared, regardless of our status as near-perfect strangers, despite not even knowing her name, because none of that mattered. What truly mattered was the connection we made for a grand total of probably less than five minutes.

And even though I’ve never seen her again, I’d like to think that she still thinks of our interaction every once in a while and smiles.

Sam

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