I was in the waiting area of a train station recently when I saw a young family. The father had a baby in a carrier. There were also two children under five and a mother. The energy in the confined space completely changed when they entered. I felt instant sadness.
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In the span of about seven minutes, I knew I was in the presence of an abuser and his victims. He was loud, insecure, a little bit vulgar, clearly wanted the attention of everyone around him when he talked. I averted my eyes because I knew he was trying to engage me and others as he spoke. But oh, I heard him.
When the little boy asked a question, the 6-foot-2 (or so) man challenged him up in his face, prompting the mother to come over and stroke her husband’s back while she verbally admonished the cowering boy. The tone, the body language, all of it disturbed me so much I was, I admit, relieved they weren’t on my train.
But as I went on with my journey that day, the children stayed with me. What chance do they have? Who are they going to grow up to be? Will we be reading about them someday, either as victims or criminals?
Such helplessness, I felt. Still feel, in fact. I’m not out to save the world, but I do strive to make my little corner of it better. That desire kicked in the morning of September 11, 2001, when skyscrapers full of people were reduced to dust before our eyes and life suddenly became about purpose. Almost everything since then for me has been infused with meaning. If it’s not readily apparent, I find it. Most of the time it feels like a magical quest. Finding kindred spirits in that realm, pure joy.
One of my favorite moments with another human being came a few years ago when a man I was dating -- definitely one of those kindred spirits -- was enjoying a meal I’d prepared. He said, “It’s a good thing we’re both like this or one of us would be talking and the other would be saying, ‘oh no, not another epiphany’ and rolling their eyes.”
That didn’t happen. Our fascination with back story made for profoundly beautiful discussions about humanity. I have always been curious about how people evolved or formed beliefs or picked up a particular habit. Why that profession, that religion, that town? Why basketball, not chess? Why cautious? Why adventurous? Why altruistic? Why not altruistic?
The abusive man is likely part of a chain of violent behavior. That makes me ache. But the helplessness in me lingers for that family. I had a feeling. I didn’t actually witness abuse, so it wasn’t about intervening.
So where does that leave me, us?
I’ll tell you where. In a more aware space. Living in a way that allows that maybe, just maybe, the person you’re interacting with in the grocery store or ticket line or at the playground is caught up in some kind of hell on earth. That perhaps the reason the woman in the deli is in such a rush is because she’s going to incur wrath if she’s not on time or the man cutting you off in the parking lot is wholly focused on the painkillers he is there to get for his loved one.
I’m not advocating pity, just compassion. Benefit of the doubt. Let’s give each other a break.
By now it is almost legend that the most memorable part of the late Stephen R. Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the anecdote where he is riding the New York subway and is sitting next to a man whose children were “loud and rambunctious” and throwing things. The man sat with his eyes closed, oblivious. Finally, Covey asks him if perhaps he can control his children a little more.
“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either,’” Covey writes.
Of course he immediately softened and extended himself to the man.
“Everything changed in an instant,” he wrote.
It can. It will. We have that power.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.