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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 www.FindingPeaceInYourHeart.com.

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