What We All Really Need When We’re Struggling

Sad Man

“There are two ways of spreading light: be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” ~Edith Wharton

I tucked my boarding pass safely into my coat pocket, donned my eyeglasses, and searched for the overhead signs that would lead me to the correct gate. Thanksgiving would be here soon and the Orlando airport was bursting at the seams with travelers.

I turned the corner and jerked to a stop. Hundreds of people stood before me, bunched together in a space the size of a ballroom. I’d have to maneuver my way through them, I thought, to get to the security gate off in the distance. And then I quickly realized that’s exactly where all those other people were headed, too.

I resigned myself to a long wait. What a waste of time, I thought to myself. I just want to get home.

A symphony of sounds surrounded me: babies crying, kids fussing, some folks complaining, some laughing, loudspeakers blaring, cell phones ringing, along with the buzz of constant chatter.

This being Orlando, a family wearing mouse ears huddled directly in front of me. I rose up on tiptoes to peek above their heads and catch a glimpse of the security area. Still far away. With no roped lanes to guide us, some newcomers gently nudged by me in an effort to gain a little bit of extra distance. Funny how you can be pressed up against others in a large crowd and at the same time be invisible to them.

The swarm of people slowly funneled their way into one of two security lanes, and at last it was my turn. I handed my identification to the agent and was ushered into a long line of people waiting to go through the scanners. At least now it was an obvious line. No more folks jockeying for position.

The woman behind me sighed. A few seconds later she sighed again. Not a sigh of frustration, more like a sigh of grim resignation. A TSA agent passed by and she flagged him down.

“This is taking so long,” she said. “Will I be able to make my flight on time?” Her tone was one of despair.

“I don’t know,” the agent replied.

“Do you think they will hold the plane a few extra minutes for me?” she asked.

I didn’t hear his response. I imagined he simply shook his head no. “Oh, dear,” she muttered to herself. “Oh, dear.”

At the pace the line was moving I figured it would be another ten minutes at least before we would pass through the x-ray scanners. Then it was anyone’s guess how far you had to walk to arrive at the proper gate.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched the woman behind me lower her head, forlorn and clearly troubled by her situation. I turned to her.

“I couldn’t help but overhear,” I said. “Please switch places with me. Every little bit helps.” She gratefully accepted my offer. We both understood that my act saved her perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds of time. Hardly enough time to make a meaningful difference.

But that which is most meaningful may not always be what you think.

Instantly, as if by magic, her demeanor changed from being tense and downcast to cheery and hopeful. She exhaled another sigh, but this time it was a sigh of relief.

“Isn’t this crazy!” she said, grinning ear to ear. “Next time I will plan better. Have you ever seen so many people?”

She stood next to me, not in front of me or behind me, but side-by-side.

We spent the next several minutes chatting happily about ordinary things—where we were headed, how wearisome travel can be, how a cup of strong coffee would taste so good right about now. But her smile never left her. And I was smiling, too. As much as I helped her to feel uplifted, I was now uplifted. My thoughts of a long day of travel ahead of me vanished.

I grew deaf to the noises and chatter all about me. I didn’t see anyone else—no kids in strollers, no adults with mouse ears. This time I wasn’t invisible but everybody else was. It was just the two of us cracking jokes and making small talk. Side-by-side.

Suddenly it was our turn for the x-ray scanner. She thanked me one last time and we parted ways. Within a minute I lost sight of her.

What just happened? I asked myself. And then I realized something important. What this woman wanted was reassurance she would make her flight on time. But what she needed was to know that somebody cared.

And isn’t that what we all need most of the time? When we feel worried or hurt or simply frustrated by life’s burdens; when the “givens” of life (sickness, loss, disappointment, heartbreak) overwhelm us; when we struggle to make our way through another day; a warm embrace, thoughtful gesture, or a hand on our shoulder can be all we need to feel a little more hopeful and, perhaps, a lot more cared about.

I don’t know if that woman got to her plane on time. When you help others along the road you may never know the outcome of their journey. But it may not have been your purpose to know. Your purpose may have been to simply meet them on the path and in some way be a source of light so they can see things from a clearer perspective—and in so doing discovering that they may have been a source of light for you.

As for me, I no longer see long lines as a waste of time but as opportunities to make a difference, however small, in someone’s life.

Never underestimate your power to make a difference in the life of others by even a small act of kindness or a few comforting words. Opportunities abound every day. Seek them out. And we all know this to be true: it is in the giving that we receive.

Lost hope image via Shutterstock

About Paul Coleman

Paul Coleman is a psychologist and speaker and the author of “Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces.” You can learn more about him from his website

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  • Andrea

    This is beautiful, Paul, and proof that just a little bit of kindness can go a very long way. I never, ever fail to be moved by a stranger smiling at me; there’s something so reassuring within that itself. You’ve reminded me that I should take the opportunities – even the smallest ones – to make people’s lives even just a teeny bit better. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hi Paul.

    What a touching account you’ve described. 🙂

    A similar experience once happened to me.

    I was returning from my home town to New Delhi (for college). While I was at train station, I found two South Indians who were clearly new to the place. They had a meeting to attend but weren’t sure how to get to the venue. They could barely speak English so it was hard to understand them.

    I helped them board the metro and made sure they knew when to get off, by pointing on the metro map. 🙂

    They were so happy, they took my contact number and called me at the end of the day to say thank you.

    They had reached safely and were able to attend their meeting successfully. 🙂

    I felt great too 😀

    Helping others is a soup for the soul 😀

  • Bullyinglte

    To me, talk therapy in any form, like you describe, allows the mind to focus on only the one thing they are doing. It is relieving both mentally and physically to connect with another and share to let out those feelings. I find that, once released, I can think just that much more clearly. Talk therapy is not a magic trick, it is simply allowing yourself to talk to another about your concerns and even just about things in general. It helps ground the talker and being a good listener on the other end (i.e. you don’t have to agree or reply, just have empathy) is equally as important.

  • Helen

    I loved this article! I think the key is connection. We want/need to feel connected to others and you beautifully described here, how that connection allowed you to forget about the rest of the world for that moment; the frustrations, the struggles, and to just be. Together just be. And that for me is the magic in those wonderful moments of connection. This feels particularly powerful when this special encounter is with a stranger, like yours. As you say, it means that the whole universe has worked a way for you to cross paths to help each other at a time when you both really needed that moment of connection with another. How special is that!!! This was a joy to read. Thank you! 🙂

  • Nancy Vail

    For sure….I went through an experience twice in the last couple years where I have felt rejection and that leaves us devastated. Some people go through their whole lives with serious self esteem issues because they feel rejected by someone who was significant to them….they don’t recover. Knowing that, it only makes sense that rejection has its opposite…that to know we are cared about and we are part of is the most important experience of all…to not feel accepted, to not belong causes serious emotional issues…all beings want to be loved and know that at some level they matter.

  • IBikeNYC

    I LOVE stuff like this!

    Sometimes I’m on the receiving end, and sometimes I’m on the giving end; either way, it’s a lovely experience. 😀

    (PS: VERY glad I do not have to fly!)

  • Very inspiring! Also remember that waiting is only burdensome when you do actively. When you let go of the expectation to be somewhere else fast you can use the time to plan, meditate, observe…

  • Becky0237

    Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful story. I keep hearing people talk about how bad the world is and how crazy people are and it gets me down, but these simple stories of people doing good for other people are the antedote to the negativity. Thank you for your willingness to put someone else’s needs above your own desires. It is so much more rewarding to offer help.


    I love this SO much!! If we all helped each other what a world this would be!!