I had to go into a hospital to visit a doctor whose office is in the same building. While I was waiting for the elevator, a woman was wheeled into the corridor where I was waiting. She was probably no more than forty-five years old, and maybe even less. She was clearly riddled with cancer, so it was difficult to gauge her real age. Her face was pale with pain, and her eyes were sunken with fatigue. An elegant, floral scarf covered her head, and she carried a girly purse in her lap that was dripping in charms and gold chains. Only one leg dangled from her wheelchair—the other one being non-existent.
I only glanced, as we all do when someone new enters a space, but we caught each other’s eyes. We both smiled genuinely at one another as her caretaker jabbered on about something and attempted to back her chair up into the restroom next to the elevators. Then, we both looked away—neither of us venturing into the forbidden territory of staring.
In that flash of a moment, I wanted to show her some sort of compassion. I’m the type of person who, when she doesn’t know what to say, bakes and then presents the food as an expression of kindness and empathy. But I didn’t have a cupcake in my purse right then (this may come as a shock to people who know me), and I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to give her a hug. But she didn’t know me, would she really want a stranger invading her personal space? Part of me wanted to throw my fist into the air and tell her to keep fighting. But who am I to comment in any way on another person’s struggles? Part of me wanted to put my hand on her shoulder and tell her that she didn’t deserve this—that no one besides murders, rapists, animal abusers, arsonists, and child molesters deserved such a hand in life. But I didn’t know her, and maybe she wouldn’t want an outsider commenting on what she did and didn’t deserve.
Then again, maybe she wanted all of that.
Instead, I ended up merely smiling as kindly as I could and saying a silent prayer for her. It doesn’t feel like enough.
I think that most of us have been in situations in which we don’t know what to do to show kindness. Sometimes, how to show compassion is obvious, such as when a little high school freshman falls down a huge hill in front of the entire student body and someone stops to ask if she’s okay and helps her pick up her books (Yes, I was that little freshman, and thank you to the girl who helped me, if you should ever read this.). Other times, compassion can be as difficult to express as trying to explain the smell of rain. It’s not that we don’t feel the urge to show kindness to another human being. Rather, it’s a matter of conveying that kindness in an inoffensive, unobtrusive, and acceptable manner to the other person. I guess that it’s also a matter of deciding whether the act of kindness is to make the other person feel better, or if it is to make you feel better.
Needless to say, I don’t have an answer for what to do in these times of uncertainty. I don’t know if I could have done more without offending the woman in the hospital. I don’t know if I should have done more. I also don’t know what it says about me that I don’t know the solutions to these issues.