I can recall one of my lost opportunities while I sat in an empty doctor’s office waiting room. A woman arrived alone. She had what looked like a surgical mask covering her mouth. As I read my book I looked up to see that she had buried her face in her hands. After a minute or so she pulled her hands away. It looked to me as though she was crying in a soft, not sobbing way. I wanted to get up and go to her and just put my hand gently and briefly on her shoulder. No words needed, just a recognition of her sadness. Yet I held myself back. Maybe she wanted privacy? How would she react to have a male stranger make such contact? Maybe my reaction might make things worse? All sorts of excuses for doing nothing but being a passive witness. Then my name was called. When I returned she was gone. I had sat on my hands.
As I recall the encounter, I realize I didn’t have to be that intrusive. I could have left my seat to move to a chair two places from her. Just move closer but not next to her. I could have handed her a box of tissues sitting at a nearby desk. That might send her the message that I recognized her distress. Even a brief moment of kindness might have conveyed to her that someone cared. But I lost the opportunity. A moment gone, never to be regained.
When I conducted elementary school programs on bullying, I talked with children about a response they could make when they witness a classmate being bullied. Just walking over and silently standing next to the bullied child may be all that it takes to overcome the isolation often felt by victims. Would that always work. Of course not. But making the effort to care reveals something to us about ourselves.