Since last summer, I have studied French at the Alliance Française of New Orleans. I have completed the A1 level (101, 102, 103, and a handful of other specialized courses like Phonetics, two Conversation courses and a Grammar & Verbs course). In addition to French, I have had six years of Spanish language instruction, which thankfully helps with the French.
When I arrived here, I was not overwhelmed by the language difference, but more so, actually comforted by the many languages all at once. Honestly, I love being able to sit (or stand) in silence and actively choose not to hear and understand someone. As Americans, we tend to speak bruffly, laugh louder and generally not notice our surroundings. We are comfortable in our skins usually, and pay no attention to those around us. We are individualistic, and while there are pros to this approach, there are also cons. I won’t delve into these; they are self-evident.
A week or so ago, I was on the bus, as usual, riding home from the Institute. I stood, as I usually do, because there was no place to sit. At rush hour, it’s hard enough just to stand up without being in someone’s space, much less to find a place to sit. On the bus, you can hear what feels like a hundred different languages all at once, or at least dialects of a few; this particular day was no exception. As we neared the next major stop, people began to get up and head toward the exit doors. There were plenty of places to sit down, but I chose to stand. I am so glad I did.
As I stood there, calculating how many more stops until I arrived home, thinking about my dinner and my to-do list, I looked down and noticed a woman sitting in the seat next to where I stood. She looked so familiar, a doppleganger of a dear friend of mine from Tulane School of Social Work. I smiled to myself, in spite of the fact that she was a complete stranger, recalling old times and the growth of friendships during my days at Tulane. She did not notice me because she was engulfed in a fast-paced text message conversation. The bus came to the next stop and more people emptied out onto the street. I looked around again, thinking I should sit, but something made me stay.
In what felt like a split second, this stranger, this doppleganger, began sobbing uncontrollably. I looked at her and for a moment, I could not believe she was crying. I looked around, and my eyes fell on an elderly woman to my right and our eyes met. Without another thought, I reached out at that moment and touched the shoulder of the woman sobbing. She startled, staring up at me with red watery eyes and my heart broke. I got tears in my eyes and despite myself, I just simply stood there … repeatedly caressing her arm and her shoulder, patting her occasionally … just to let her know she was not alone. She did not pull away, she did not get angry … she just continued to sob, leaning into me. Every second that went by felt like an eternity, and all I could wish in my brain was that whatever it was that was hurting her so would not be the loss of a child, or a loved one. She repeatedly gathered her composure, and each time I pulled away when I thought she was okay. But then, inevitably, she would begin sobbing again. We repeated this care and space dance a handful of times until we finally came to her stop. As she picked herself up and I squeezed her arm to let her know that it would be okay, whatever “it” was, she bravely and gratefully looked deep into my eyes, and what felt like deep into my soul, and softly whispered, almost inaudibly, “merci” …
As she descended from the bus, I looked over again to my right and the elderly woman was crying. She looked up at me and nodded and kept nodding … smiling a sad smile of understanding, tears running down her cheeks. I collapsed into the seat where my stranger had just sat. I felt her presence, her sadness, the heaviness of whatever it was that just broke her world. As tears welled up, I realized that in all of that exchange, no words were spoken. No words needed to be spoken because the mere reaching out to her in a time of distress was enough.
Sometimes, just being there is enough for people. Just showing that you care about humanity and what becomes of it … matters. And perhaps it changed her or her outlook on the ability to trust people, I do not know. But I do know that it changed me, because in that experience was the stark reminder that we all need love and compassion, and no language can ever be a barrier to kindness. Today, I thought I saw her on the bus, but she was farther ahead of me and there were ten people between us, but I remembered this experience again and I knew that I had to share.
So, I propose this to you: look around today. See beyond your to-do list. Determine what it is that you want to bring to the world. No words need to be spoken. Perhaps it is simply picking up a toy for a child, or smiling at a complete stranger. Perhaps it is opening the door for every single person you cross paths with … or perhaps it will be something as profound as my experience. Just remember that we are all on this Earth for a plethora of reasons, so make your reason count.