Reaching Out

March 18, 2010

As I sat waiting in the Chicago airport for my delayed flight on Saturday, a woman sat down in the seat across from me.  I was a bit agitated since my flight had been delayed several hours, which meant I would not get home until after 11pm.  When the woman sat down, I could tell by her demeanor that something was wrong.  She kept shifting in her seat, sighing heavily, and checking her phone.  Eventually her phone rang, she answered it and immediately burst into tears.  She kept trying to control her sobs by taking deep breaths, but no matter how hard she tried they kept escaping from her chest.

In order to respect her privacy, I kept trying to focus on reading and not make eye contact with her.  As the woman hung up, her sobs continued.  I finally asked her, “Ma’am are you ok?”  She shrugged, half nodded, and murmured, “I’ll be ok.”  I waited across from this woman for an hour.  Her phone rang non-stop and with every call she would get upset.  As I pieced the story together, the woman had gotten reamed out by her son’s coach because her son was going to miss the hockey championship game that night.  Her son was with his father, the woman’s recent ex-husband, and the father had not gotten the son to his flight on time.  The woman’s wounds were deep.  Her heart broke for her son and his team, and she obviously mourned the recent loss of her marriage. 

I sat across from her feeling helpless.  I wanted to do something to console her.  But what could I, a stranger, do?  I continued to make eye contact every now and then with her and smile as she talked and cried on the phone.  My flight was called, and I stood to leave.  She was on the phone when I started walking away, I gently touched her shoulder as I left and said, “I hope your day gets better.” 

This incident occurred six days ago.  I cannot get the image of this woman out of my head.  I wanted to do so much more to console her, but I felt helpless.  I did not know what else to do.  I stood at that strange boundary of do I reach out, cross that safe boundary, and help my neighbor or do I sit and “pretend” I do not see anything?

As I walked away, I heard the woman say to her friend, “Some people are just nice.  This woman in the airport just made my day.”  While I wish those words brought me comfort, I cannot get the image of this distraught woman out of my head, and I am only left feeling like I did not do enough. 

What do we typically do when we find ourselves in this kind of situation?
Do we engage and reach out or do we “pretend” the situation is not in front of us?
What does our faith call us to do?

Becky is an Ignatian-trained spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and writer. She is the author of the Busy Lives and Restless Souls (March 2017, Loyola Press) and The Inner Chapel (April 2020, Loyola Press). She helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life through facilitating retreats and days of reflection, through writing, and through spiritual direction. With nearly twenty years of ministry experience within the Catholic Church, Becky seeks to help others discover God at work in the every day moments of people’s lives by utilizing St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the many gifts that our Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality provide.

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1 Comment

  1. Briana

    Becky, thank you for sharing this. I had a similar experience a few weeks back. I was walking home from the L station to my apartment and I passed a girl on the phone. As I passed and continued to walk in front of her, I heard her say “I’m homeless, I don’t know what to do anymore, I just can’t handle this” and related sentiments. She was walking towards her car and she didn’t know where she was going to go. I didn’t know what to say, out of respect for her privacy, but all I could do was pray. I kept repeating to myself “Help her know it’s going to be okay, she’s going to be okay.” I kept praying/saying it until I got home, and then I just let it go. I hope everything turned out for her.

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