Recently, while attending church at a local parish, I encountered a young woman in a nearby pew who was visibly upset. I could tell just from looking into her eyes that something was seriously wrong. After church was over, I looked back again and she began to weep, stamping her feet in despair and frustration.
I quickly realized that I had two options: I could walk away, or I could comfort her.
I am going to be brutally honest here, folks. I was tired. I was hungry. All I really wanted to do that night was go for a long run in Central Park, satiate my hunger with a delicious salad, catch up on emails while listening to my Eric Whitacre Spotify playlist, and sleep. The following thoughts surged through my head:
I could just ignore her. I could pretend that I never even noticed. I could leave now, and then I would definitely have enough time to do everything I want to do tonight. I really don’t have time to stay… I need sleep so bad. [And…was that my stomach? Wow, that’s embarrassing. I need to eat.] Well, there are a few other people still here. They all look really holy. Probably someone will help her out. I’m definitely not the best candidate. Besides, I’m new here. I don’t even know who she is. I don’t even know what I would say or do. It could get really awkward.
After a few moments of examining these narcissistic thoughts, I realized, to my complete horror, that I was desperate to let myself off the hook. I was coming up with every excuse in the book not to do what was right.
Buck up, buttercup. There you go with that word again, “awkward.” So what if it’s awkward! Okay, yeah, there are still people in here, but what if they’re all thinking the same thing? Who’s to say that someone will do something? If I walk out now, I’ll never know if she got help. If I walk out now, I might miss the perfect opportunity to give her the comfort and love and compassion and affirmation that she clearly needs. What if no one has ever told her that she is beautiful and precious and loved and worthwhile? What if?! I’m pretty sure that’s more important than a run, a salad, a to-do-list, and even Eric Whitacre. I’m pretty sure it’s, like, the most important thing for any human being to know. Alright, so maybe it doesn’t matter that I’m new here. It just matters that I’m a human being. That’s enough.
In that moment, I decided to simply give this woman all I had: time, attention, compassion, empathy, love. But most importantly, the sincere gift of myself— my fellow humanity.
Yeah, it was a little awkward. No, I can’t say I’ve ever read a step-by-step guide on “How to Comfort a Crying Stranger in New York City Who Appears To Be Dealing with a Terrible Tragedy.” Yeah, no.
I placed my hand on her shoulder. I wiped the tears from her eyes, and pulled her hair back. I told her she was beautiful, loved, valuable, and worthwhile. I affirmed her dignity. I simply told her that I was there for her. I tried to console her by saying “It’s going to be okay.” Then, I just sat with her. We mourned, together. Something about it was just… right.
She didn’t say a word to me. But she understood and nodded her head several times. She wept, and in her eyes I saw anguish, desperation, anxiousness, heartbreak. A man walked by and offered her a water bottle. She threw it.
I’m not telling this story to paint myself as a hero. I’m telling this story because it compelled me to think deeply about the human experience. Since moving to New York City, I’ve become increasingly aware of our attempt to create self-protective bubbles. Part of it is safety. I get that. Part of it is necessity. But most of it is ridiculous. It would appear to an outsider that people are most happy hiding behind some rather large shades, smart phone in hand, earphones plugged in, head bowed down and social media newsfeed on tap.
But, is isolated egoism a path to authentic happiness? Is that what it means to be human? To discover ourselves? To be who we are—social, relational, spiritual? Does that vision allow us to become and to develop, integrally? I think not.
So then why are we so eager to avoid awkwardness? Why is awkwardness even a thing? Maybe it’s because as humans, we tend to like what we know. We like to do things we know how to do. We like to sing songs we know how to sing. We like to talk about subjects that we are very familiar with—because it’s easy and comfortable to do so. But to reach out to another person is to reach out to someone who we can never fully know or understand, because their unique experience of the world will never be the same as ours.
As I reflect on my encounter with the young woman in Church, I’ve come to realize that I was struggling too, just in a different way. My struggle was a microcosm of a universal human experience: the tension between being and becoming that we read about in the WYA training—between the value of our existence and the determining actions we take in our lives, between what we are and what we could be. This tension manifests itself most clearly in the experience of conscience, and it can only be resolved by freely making choices in accord with our natural inclination for goodness. Making the right choices becomes possible when we take the time to self-reflect and to contemplate who we are, what it is that we deeply yearn for, and how each of our choices will, inevitably, either lead us closer to or further from that for which we deeply yearn.
We weren’t made to exist as isolated individuals. Our existence doesn’t make sense on just an individual level. As humans, we find out who we are through our relationships with others.
Lauren Benzing is a WYA North America intern. A runner from Iowa, she is pounding the pavement in the concrete jungle of New York City.