It was her sniffling that broke my trance as I sat on the subway and mentally prepared myself for the workday ahead. My first emotion was annoyance; I thought the woman next to me had a cold or worse, the flu – I would surely catch it and I couldn’t afford to be sick.
As my mind willed energy and focus into my body, I continued my morning commute meditation, envisioning my poise as a meeting facilitator, leveraging my coaching skills to find common ground amongst the group I was nudging towards change. Yet my visualization exercise was repeatedly interrupted by the incessant sniffling. My irritation was suddenly shattered by a jolt realization. The woman sitting next to me on the subway was crying.
I stole a quick glance at her and saw tears, not down her cheek but tangled in her long thick eyelashes. I opened my purse to rummage through the ridiculous amount of items I carried in it, trying to find a tissue that did not carry the crumbs that were surely at the bottom of my bag of chaos. Upon finding a crumpled but relatively clean tissue, I handed it to the crying woman next to me. As she gratefully took the tissue, our eyes met for a brief second and I saw a profound sadness in her eyes, eyes that were younger than mine, brown and brimmed with tears that were about to spill from her lashes onto her cheek at any moment.
She used the tissue to wipe her eyes and began to cry even harder, doing her best to swallow her whimpers, holding her breath in hopes of not making a scene. I stared at my lap trying to give her privacy despite her sitting just two inches from me. Her sadness projected such a potent energy that I felt compelled to help her in some way. But I did not know what to do. I did not know this woman, but I felt her intense pain. So I took her hand in mine and squeezed it slightly, trying my best to communicate my compassion for her suffering. We sat there, holding hands, two strangers saying nothing to each other, while I stared down passengers watching her, willing them to look away and give her privacy.
When the subway stopped at my station, I was lost again in what to do, how to help her. So I gave her hand another gentle squeeze and said “I am so sorry you are feeling this way.” I wanted to honor her pain rather than give her false assurance – after all, I had no idea why she was crying. She gave me a gentle nod, but our eyes did not meet, and I begrudgingly walked out to the platform.
As I walked to my office, I did not envision how I would have impact in the meeting I was about to facilitate. I envisioned the woman on the subway, digging deep to pull herself together, and then proceeding to work where she would put on a smile and work effectively and efficiently throughout the day. She would provide no one even the hint of her struggle. She was strong. She could handle this. She would rise above it all. I hoped.