A number of years ago I joined a moms-of-preschoolers group. The group was religious-based and I was not particularly religious but I thought it might be a nice way to meet other moms in the area with kids of a similar age. I grew up attending various churches depending on where my family lived but I had not been an active church-goer for quite a while (I am still not).
So at each of these meetings someone from the group would stand up and give a speech to the 100 or so moms gathered there. The speakers were usually women who had been coming to this group for a while or were part of the organizing core or who knew each other. The stories were sometimes inspirational and sometimes funny and generally related to some passage of scripture or some life lesson. The speech was usually about 10 minutes long and was just a small part of the overall meeting. But one of those speeches, or rather the experience of listening to the speech, has stayed with me for over 4 years now.
I don’t remember the actual content of the speech other than the speaker was talking about a hard experience she had lived through, either a loved one was ill or had moved away or had died, like I said I don’t remember the specifics. What I do remember though is that this woman was crying while she gave this speech and was really struggling to get the words out. The speech was prepared and written down and she was having to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand to see the words she had written and she was taking big deep, gasping breaths to stop crying and to speak. And that was not even the part I really really remember.
The part I really really remember is that no one went to her. No one took her tissues. No one walked up and stood next to her. No one held her hand or put their arm around her shoulders. No one propped her up as she beared witness to this event in her life that caused her such pain. No one.
And ever since that day I have tried to be different. I have tried, when I witness someone in pain, to be there; I generally have no idea what to say or do but I think that’s OK most of the time. Most of the time it is just about being present. I have tried to acknowledge that I see the hurt. I have tried to provide tissues. I have tried really hard to not be that person who sits in the back and looks around waiting for someone else to step up and stand next to the person that is hurting.
To this day I feel badly for not stepping up and standing next to that woman while she cried, alone, at the front of a room. I kept sitting there thinking one of her friends would step up, this woman obviously knew people in this room since she was up there speaking today. Or someone else sitting on the platform right behind her would hand her a tissue or a napkin since they were only 5 feet away and I was on the other side of a giant room. Or that I could not be the one to step up because I knew nobody in that room and surely someone else in that room would be a better choice than me to stand up. But in reality those were all excuses because I was scared. I was scared to walk up there and put myself out there (in front of a room of people I did not know).
But that’s the thing, if you see someone who needs help or needs a hand to hold or a shoulder to lean on, if YOU see that, then why shouldn’t it be YOU who acts on that? Do you have to know the person to acknowledge they need help? Do you already have to be their friend to pass along a tissue to dry their tears? Do you have to know anything about them other than the simple fact that they are another human and need help in that moment?
So, today I am bearing witness to the fact that I wish I could have done better that day so many years ago. I wish I had the strength in that moment to step up on that stage and simply stand next to someone I had never met and let them know they were not alone. And because of that day, I will continue to try and do better, to acknowledge and be present, even if it is uncomfortable to sit with someone else’s pain. Because at the end of the day what we really have in this crazy life is each other.
If I were my own best friend I would forgive myself for not acting four years ago and I would remind myself to continue to strive each day to simply be human. To recognize when someone needs to be propped up and to step up and do the propping (even if it is uncomfortable and messy). To be present.