Reaching Out

September 5, 2011

Several months ago, I sat waiting in the Chicago airport for my delayed flight, 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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3 Comments

  1. Kiwi Nomad 2008

    Strangely I have just been thinking about a young woman I met on the Camino several years ago, in a cafe. I guess it was the sort of place where it was quite normal to talk to strangers, and it was ‘odd’ almost that there were only two of us there. From this young woman’s conversation it was clear that she was thinking about suicide, and I knew that I needed to be very careful with what I said. But in that critical time, it didn’t seem like I was alone- it was as if the words I said were ‘guided’. I still think of this young woman, and hope she found the love and hope she so desperately needed.

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  2. GailNHB

    I am reminded of the Scripture that says that some plant the seed, some water, and someone else gets the increase or the harvest. It seems to me that in those moments of listening, of being attentive, of making eye contact, of touching a tired shoulder, of speaking a simple and kind word, we are someplace along that continuum in their lives, someplace we may not be aware of, effecting changes that we may never know… on this side of heaven. Our calling and responsibility is to be alert, to do what we can in the moment, and to pray that God will bring the increase. The good news is that, in those moments as we listen to the guidance of the Spirit, we are never alone – and the people we encounter are never alone either.

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  3. Becky Eldredge

    @Kiwi Nomad, what a touching story, and one that I am sure will stick with you for a long time. Isn’t it strange how encounters like that make such an impact on us?

    @Gail, what a great reminder! It reminds me of a prayer by Oscar Romero…I will have to post that one now!

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