Hugging strangers at the airport

Yep. I think I’ve finally lost my marbles… gone bonkers… round the bend… completely lost my inhibitions…

I hugged a complete stranger in the ladies’ bathroom of the Cairns airport.

I should probably give you some back story here. I don’t think I’ve actually gone mad, but considering the onlookers’ general approach was “desperately-trying-to-pretend-I-don’t-see-that-woman-crying-her-eyes-out-at-the-basin” as they hurriedly washed their hands, touched up their lippy, smoothed their hair and got the heck outta there, I was certainly in the minority by stopping to ask if she was ok.

All I did was imagine myself in her place. Crying. Hyperventilating. Inconsolable. All I would want is for someone, ANYONE, to ask if they could do anything to help. Maybe even sit and chat for a while. I would just not want to feel so alone.

So after I had washed my hands, and smoothed my hair… and contemplated the “seeming like a nosey creepy psycho:beneficial human interaction” risk ratio, I asked her, “Are you ok?”

It seemed too weak a way to start the conversation – I mean, she was obviously not ok – but how else does one begin?

Initially, she politely denied anything was wrong with the usual “Oh no, it’s ok… thanks” and seemed embarrassed as she suddenly become aware of all the other people in the bathroom who were trying not to be aware of her. She tried to get her breathing under some semblance of control and wiped her face. But I didn’t just turn and leave. How could I? Something serious had just happened in this person’s life and none of her usual support network were there to, well, support her through whatever this was.

I inclined my head and continued, “Are you sure? Is there anything I can do? You don’t have to tell me what’s wrong but if I can help in any way, I’d like to.”

At this, she burst into a fresh wave of tears and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much, but there’s really nothing anyone can do.”

She stood there, a metre away from me, arms limp and defeated by her side, and sobbed. Openly, heart-wrenchingly sobbed.

I’m not sure where all my caution went, but it was gone. There was nothing else for it; a person in need of a hug, is a person in need of a hug. Of course, being complete strangers, I didn’t force it upon her (I’m preeeeeetty sure that’s an offence) but the least I could do was offer. And she could decline it if she wished.

“I don’t know what else I can do, but (pause) would you like a hug?”

The look on her face completely changed.

Relief.

Comfort.

A glimmer of hope and happiness at being welcomed into someone else’s space.

Her arms sprang up and reached out towards me as she quietly yet emphatically replied, “Yes!”

We embraced. I patted her back and stroked her hair, but said nothing. This didn’t need words. She cried into the corner of my neck and shoulder and clutched at my back like it was a lifebuoy. What felt like minutes later, she slowly released her grip, took a step backwards, wiped her face and whispered, “Thank you. I really needed that.”

I told her that she was most welcome, and that I hoped whatever was causing her so much pain and sadness would soon resolve. Without being conscious of it, I almost bowed to her with my palms together as a gesture of peace and farewell.

We entered that ladies’ room as strangers, and left as strangers, but somewhere in between, she allowed me to be her rock to cling to in whatever storm she was caught in that day. I offered myself up as whatever she needed, while others left her to her own devices. A year ago, I probably would have been one of the onlookers. I’m not sure exactly what has changed me – a lot has happened this year – but the part of me that would have held back, just didn’t. I suppose I realised I had nothing to lose by offering, and that gave me the confidence to approach her. The worst she could have done was decline me and berate me for suggesting that I could even begin to help with what she was going through – and even that, I know, was an unlikely outcome and not exactly a huge ordeal for me to live through considering I would likely never see this person again.

So why tell you all this?

I want to share my experience of choosing to offer to make someone else’s hard time a little easier, rather than making my life easier by ignoring it; to pass on a piece of that confidence I found somewhere inside me to take the risk of being harshly rejected for the potential benefit of someone else’s mental health. Perhaps if you find yourself being the onlooker, instead contemplate taking the opportunity to offer help. It didn’t cost me cent to have that conversation with her, but it made a difference to how she coped with her situation that day. To have someone offer their attention, time, non-judgemental support, and even a simple but heartfelt hug, restores a little of your faith in humanity.

In other news, I finally took the chance to say something encouraging to a complete stranger! (see previous post)

You never know what hidden battles anyone else is fighting so spread peace, love and kindness always – but especially this festive season.

Peace be with you!*

*Full disclosure: Although this is typically a Catholic phrase, I am not Catholic. I am an atheist who really likes the sentiment captured in that phrase. All you really need to know about that is: I live my life by a code of values, ethics, and morals which generally boils downs to the same basic principles at the core of most religions. The only big differences are that: I acknowledge myself as the decider of my decisions and thus the bearer of the consequences, good and bad; and I trust that science holds the answers to how we came to be here, but we, as individuals, decide what we do while we are here.

But that’s a WHOLE OTHER POST that I may never actually write.

I feel it is important to note that atheism does not preclude me from caring about other people. It does not preclude me from being compassionate and hoping that all people can live with a sense of peace and contentment – actually, that is exactly what I strive for and is what I saw lacking in the woman’s life that day. I merely hoped to contribute, in some small way, to rebuilding her sense of inner peace – not because I think it will put me in good favour with an omnipotent being, but simply because if I were in her place I would hope that someone would do the same for me.

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