Risking compassion, openness reaps more than connection

I was certain the day was going to be spectacular.

Fueled by an energetic workout, a peaceful meditation and the perfect cup of coffee, I couldn’t help smiling as I walked out the door, ready for work. That the sun crowned a sky of cloudless cerulean lightened my step, even as I thought of everything awaiting my attention once I got to the office. It was my kind of summer day.

I was still basking in its gilded promise when I saw a young man talking on his cellphone as I neared my car. My cursory glance took in the over-sized T-shirt, the shorts hanging from his hips, the backward baseball cap, the general scruffiness of his appearance — and I admit I made a judgment, hasty and dismissive. And then I overheard a snippet of his conversation:

“Man, my best friend died last night.”

I heard the catch in his voice. Saw the quick swipe at his eyes. And for a moment, I stopped. I was at my car door, mere feet from where he stood on the sidewalk, suddenly deflated, the shimmer of the day evaporated with the prick of his grief. Words bubbled up, soft and curious, that I knew I would not speak. He was oblivious to my presence, but I briefly contemplated going to his side, asking if he were all right and if he needed anything, pushing past the veil separating us as strangers to see him as I, too, had been and likely would be again: bewildered, hurting, angry, sewn up with a sorrow straining against its seams.

But instead, I got into my car and drove away, and offered what I thought was the next-best thing: a prayer for solace and healing for him, for his recently departed friend and the family and other friends who had known and loved that individual, too. Yet that moment stayed with me all day and even now, more than two weeks after it happened, sadness wells at the thought of his solitary figure on the sidewalk, facing the bleakness ahead.

I reflected on my impulse to extend some sign of compassion, snatched back because I didn’t know him, because it might not have been proper or welcomed, because only moments before I’d heard him break his devastating news, I’d already conjured a stereotype, ascribed to him a lifestyle divergent from my own.

But how different are we, really? And how many times a day, I wondered, did we all do exactly what I’d done, though perhaps unconsciously, so preoccupied with our own lives or fearful of being vulnerable that we brush past the hurting or turn from the pain in their eyes? Yet we are all of us, somewhere, carrying an ache, a broken dream, a loss whose memory can unexpectedly sear us years after we believe we’ve let go of its weight. But we walk with layers of Band-Aids, with masks, keeping our secret selves tucked behind walls tumbled only within our most intimate circles — sometimes making even that allowance with great reluctance or only after the pressure of being so self-contained forces a crack that begins to leak our despair.

Perhaps our burdens wouldn’t be so heavy, our wounds so surprisingly tender, if we dared to live with a greater transparency.

We may have been taught that to do so is to invite ridicule or rejection, that to appear less than put-together, independent and capable is somehow a sign of weakness. Yet what if showing up every day as who we really are, with our frailties and fears and sadness, along with all of our hopes and joys, is what allows us to not only be more accessible to others but to see their humanity, too.

Then, a seemingly random act of compassion, such as reaching out to a young man in the throes of fresh heartache, wouldn’t be seen as random at all but simply what we do, how we engage with the world.

Recently, a friend returned from vacation to share an eye-opening conversation she’d had with a young manicurist at a spa. After a few years of struggling with polycystic ovary syndrome and accompanying infertility, she’d recently come to a decision not to adopt, one that still had her muddled as she endeavored to redefine her priorities.

Admittedly the one to always keep her nose in a magazine and not talk to anyone in such an environment, she was stunned when a seemingly innocent question to the manicurist opened a dialogue that ultimately freed her to explore her ambivalence about having kids.

As the 26-year-old shared her own struggles with PCOS and infertility, she also talked of her mother having lovingly raised three kids despite being unsure of ever wanting children and the resentment she felt having to sacrifice her passion for her career and her community involvement.

While bonding over their shared pain, my friend found affirmation in knowing some women aren’t meant to be mothers in the traditional sense and that perhaps she can put all the love she has to give to better use in another capacity.

I recall, too, a night my boyfriend Zane went to get a haircut, only to be moved by the conversation he had with the stylist who’d recently lost a beloved aunt.

What began as a connection over their shared love of music became a reflection on grief and the pain — seemingly forgotten or ignored by those not directly affected by the loss — that lingers long after the memorial service and the raw immediacy of shock and sorrow have passed. With Zane, she found a fleeting but safe space to share not only her love for her aunt but the ache of living with her absence.

And I will never forget the woman who years ago simply opened her arms when I told her an ex and I had broken up. I didn’t know her that well, but I’d been to a gathering a year earlier when he and I were not only together but spoke lovingly of each other after we’d been briefly introduced to her.

A year later, post-breakup and at a similar event, she remembered us and harmlessly inquired about him. I didn’t know it then but I would learn she had recently separated from her partner, and so the hug she offered — one that I gratefully fell into as a dormant sadness bobbed to the surface at her query — was not only a gift of consolation but one of true empathy and understanding. And on that night, I imagined it was comforting to us both.

Years later, on that morning of fractured perfection, with a grief-stricken figure fading from my rear-view mirror, I thought of her and the salve of her unanticipated gesture. And it struck me that such an act of caring could be the only kindness another person receives in any given day. It could even be their last human contact before they’re thrust from the clutches of time.

So why not walk heart-first into each day, with an openness that invites others in and reveals to us just how similar we are, all of us bruised and beautiful, strung with rubies, pierced with shards and seeking some fulfillment before an inexorable vanishing dawn.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times