I needed a break. I felt absolutely exhausted today. Though I have been working hard all week, I didn’t feel physically tired. No, I was instead emotionally stressed and overwhelmed. The events of the past 72 hours have been difficult for everyone. Because of the fallout from the election of November 8, 2016, I just felt the need to escape from all of the hatred and anger, the chaos and noise, the endless arguments and rhetoric. Though I had kept myself personally out of the fray, the constant barrage of angry Facebook posts, disturbing news images, and self-righteous online articles has proven somewhat upsetting to my inner sense of peace and balance. I wanted to be alone; I wanted to place my feet up and escape into a good book. I decided to spend an hour or two this afternoon just relaxing in a fast food restaurant with a cup of tea and my own peaceful thoughts. I had the foolish notion that I would be hidden and safe here away from all the turmoil of the outside world. I was wrong.
I had had just a few minutes of peace before my attention was suddenly captured by an older man who walked directly in front of me. I watched as the man slowly moved over to a table in the middle of the room. The short, heavy-set man was dressed in gray slacks and a yellow plaid shirt. Upon his gray, balding head were thick, wire-framed glasses, and a halo. Though I have never had to wear one of these contraptions myself, I am familiar with halos. I have had several friends who have had to use them. Basically, a halo is a medical device designed to hold a patient’s head straight after a neck or spine injury. It is constructed of short, steel rods that rise up from the patient’s shoulders and connect to a round piece of metal that surrounds the head. The halo is secured in place by several small screws that are placed through the metal and directly into the patient’s skull. The apparatus is lightweight but can be a little awkward for some patients who struggle with balance and stability.
I smiled at the man and said a silent prayer for him as he carefully sat down on a tall, brown stool next to a high, white table. Though I found the man fascinating, I didn’t want to stare at him, of course, so I turned my attention back to my book. After a moment, though, I looked up again when I heard him holler out, “Ketchup. I want ketchup for my fries.” His comment made me smile because he sounded just like a little boy. I don’t know if it was his demeanor, his tone, or his words that made him sound so young. I just grinned, though, as the man jumped up and down in his seat for a moment in happy anticipation of his meal.
A few minutes later, a thin, middle-aged woman with dark, shoulder-length hair and black-framed glasses walked over and sat down across from the man in the halo. She placed a tray of food down on the table between them and the two began to eat their meal.
I returned to reading my book and enjoying my peace of mind when all of a sudden I heard the woman yell. “Goddamn it!” I looked up in surprise at the sound of the woman’s deep, strained voice as she pushed the angry words out through gritted teeth. “Goddamn it! Watch what you’re doing!” The woman then sighed heavily as she threw the food she was holding down on the table. “Look at you! You have ketchup all over yourself now.” The woman shouted as she got up from her seat and walked around the table. She grabbed a napkin and started swiping at the man’s shirt. “Goddamn it!” she snarled again. “Look at this mess!”
I was horrified by her words and actions as she furiously swiped at the man’s sticky, stained shirt with the tattered, paper napkin. I had no idea what the relationship was between the man and woman, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t care if they were father and daughter or husband and wife. What mattered was the way they related to each other and I was shocked as I heard the woman talk to the man as if he was a ten-year-old child. How could she treat another human being like that, especially a person who was already dealing with a medical condition? This woman actually had some nerve to…
And then suddenly she turned around and looked at me…
And I was surprised to see in her dark eyes a reflection of pain and heartache.
Our eyes met for just the briefest of moments before she looked away. She quickly walked back over to her chair and sat down. She looked at me one last time and I surprised myself by smiling at her. She stared at me for a moment as an agonized look clouded her face before she looked away. Though I hadn’t been happy with the way she had treated the man in the halo, when I looked into the woman’s eyes, I suddenly understood.
This wasn’t an evil woman. This wasn’t a cruel woman. This was a woman who must have been struggling to take care of this man for a very long time. Oh, my God, she must be so tired! Her stress and exhaustion must be completely overwhelming her.
And haven’t we all been guilty of doing the very same thing? Haven’t we all screamed and yelled and cursed and been sarcastic and impatient and hateful when we have been tired or hungry or overwhelmed? What possible right did I have to hate or criticize this woman when I have behaved the very same way at times myself?
If I witnessed the man being horribly abused, I would have definitely intervened. But what I had witnessed was a kind woman caring for a sickly man and having a momentary loss of composure. I don’t know this woman; I don’t know the situation. But I do know I saw hurt, and pain, and exhaustion within the woman’s dark eyes during her sudden outburst. A singular moment of being human, a flash of angry emotion, could not erase all of the time and effort and sacrifices she must be making on a daily basis for another human being.
Hoping I hadn’t embarrassed the woman, I turned my attention back to my book but I couldn’t focus on the words that were floating around on the page. Instead, I prayed, “Dear God, thank you so much for letting me be compassionate in this moment. Thank you for allowing me to understand this situation instead of being disrespectful and jumping to awful conclusions about this woman’s life and intentions. Please let this man heal and please give this woman the strength and courage to take care of her family and help this man’s medical needs with a kind heart.”
As I finished my prayers, the couple stood up from their table and threw away their trash. Slowly, they made their way to the exit door. As the woman pushed and held the door open for the man, she looked back at me one more time. I smiled at her and she smiled back at me with a shake of her head before stepping outside and letting the door close softly behind her.
I wanted to go back to my book then but I couldn’t focus. Instead, I just sat my book aside and thought about the times I had misjudged and been unnecessarily critical of someone else’s life. It is really true: you never really know what another person has been through. You never really know the path another person is forced to walk and the cross he or she must carry.
And maybe even with all of the turmoil from the election, we can learn to really see each other, to understand what another soul may be suffering. Maybe the only think that can make a difference now, while facing an unsure future, is how we treat each other, how we can show understanding, support, and love to each other. Maybe in our own way we can learn to show compassion in such hard times. It starts with us. We have to make the difference. It starts with our own understanding and ends with unconditional love. It’s the only way we can maintain our humanity amidst such incredible chaos.