I was in a Chicago airport last fall waiting for my friend to pick me up. It was almost midnight and I had just arrived back in the US after spending a month in Nicaragua. I wasn’t feeling well, exhausted from traveling, and just wanted to crawl into a giant bed and die for 12 hours.
A man sat down next to me. I guessed he was probably late 30s // early 40s and like me, he looked exhausted. My first reaction was great. I hope he doesn’t try and talk to me. But of course, as strangers often do, he started talking and within 20 minutes I had found out his entire life story. He was the father of two young boys and was dealing with the aftermath of a divorce and a brutal custody battle. He lived part time in Costa Rica and had an online job he didn’t want to talk about other than it was “ruining him.” He asked me about my travels and my career and soon our conversation developed into ideas on how he could improve his life, how he could get back into doing the things he loved and enjoyed the most.
I can’t really explain what it was but there was a vulnerability about him I sensed as soon as he started talking to me. I had a gut instinct that this conversation was important and so I sat there next to him, asking him questions, listening to his story, and giving him my thoughts. I had to leave when my friend arrived and when I stood up to say goodbye the man took my hands and thanked me. “This conversation meant everything to me.”
That was three months ago and I still wonder about that man and how he’s doing.
What is it about strangers that make us compelled to open up and share our stories? This was not the first time this has happened to me and I know this is something others experience from time to time. Do you ever think about the people we meet in life, if only for a brief moment, and wonder why your paths have crossed? The connections we make with strangers in fleeting moments can be powerful and yet I’m left to wonder why we don’t try to make these connections more often.
I remember reading once about how building relationships is much like dancing with another person – how when one person takes a step, perhaps by revealing something intimate about themselves, then the other person takes a step by acknowledging the moment and reciprocating the movement. Every relationship is formed by a series of give and take interactions by both people to create a healthy unison and comfortable space for the two to thrive in. But if the other person doesn’t acknowledge the step taken and fails to reciprocate then a wall is put up; the dance ends abruptly. The person who initiated the dance, the relationship, the moment in which bonding should have occurred, learns to take a step back, to become a little bit less open.
I think about how this can be applied in everyday situations because isn’t every social interaction a bit like a dance in itself? Someone asks you how you are, they say hello on the street, in line at the coffee shop, waiting at the doctor’s office, the airport, whatever – they reach out to you in some way to receive a human connection. They’re extending their hand out to you and saying won’t you dance with me? even if just for a moment? but we fail to recognize that invitation. We think things like great. I hope he doesn’t try and talk to me. We get bothered by other’s needs because we just want to focus on our own. We’re so caught up in our own lives and personal dramas that sometimes recognizing someone’s invitation can seem like too much of a burden. And I get it. That’s just life. That’s what happens. We’re all selfish or jaded creatures who have been burned too many times from initiating our own dances with other people who left us standing there, with our hands out, denying our need for a human connection.
Not everyone is kind. Not every stranger means well. These are the things we unfortunately know all too well. But think about how different things could be if we opened ourselves up just a bit more in all those small moments in life we think are irrelevant.
We bare our souls to the people we love but there are other ways we bare our souls every day to people who don’t even know us, maybe because those are the people we need the most in that moment. It’s the man in the airport who just needed someone to tell him you’ll be okay. you are enough. It’s people on the internet sharing their lives through status updates and blog posts, looking for any source of recognition.
And maybe other times we don’t even need words, just a simple acknowledgement – a smile, eye contact – little ways to let someone else know you are here. you are alive. I see you.
Think about how different things could be.