Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
~ Henry David Thoreau
So opens a short video that was shared on my Facebook feed today. It is a promo bit for Cleveland Clinic, but it shares a profound truth. It is a series of silent vignettes of people in a medical setting: patients in a waiting room; doctors performing treatments; visitors; people sharing an elevator. With each scene, some text emerges above the subjects: 19 year-old son on life support appears with a worried-looking couple in a hospital cafeteria; doesn’t completely understand displays above a vacant-eyed elderly woman sitting with her middle-aged son before a doctor. In the elevator, a man worries about his wife who just had a stroke; a woman in a white coat is newly divorced; and another man just found out he will be a father.
Each bit of text leaves us with an impression of the subjects’ state of mind. We see sorrow, uncertainty, joy, love, and worry etched on these faces, and we can empathize. Immediately, our heart goes out to the little girl who is visiting her Dad and the woman who is in shock at the doctor’s news. We see ourselves in the waiting area for three hours (or more). These are actors, of course, but they represent a universal us. We are all the same. Doctors and nurses have joy and pain just as patients do, just as the family does, just as we — I — do.
It never hurts to remember that we each have our stories. That driver who sped recklessly through traffic may be on his way to the hospital to see his daughter who clings to life after a drunk driver hit her on the way to school. The cashier at the grocery store who seemed to ignore you may be thinking about how to tell her children that she and her husband are divorcing. Perhaps the reason your boss didn’t seem to be listening to your big proposal is that his wife is coming home tonight after a month-long work assignment in another city. Your child’s teacher was just diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and that’s why she has been acting a bit ‘off.’
You just don’t know.
By the time the 4-minute video came to an end, I had tears welling up in my eyes. Compassion is a vital virtue; a walk in someone else’s shoes may be your most valuable journey. Too often we misread intent in others because we don’t know the back story or we misinterpret their actions. Sometimes, it’s haste; sometimes, it’s indifference; sometimes, it’s just that we don’t see.
I recently spent the better part of two days waiting in a hospital. I had brought plenty of reading material, as well as a tablet for surfing the web, but I passed a lot of time watching other people: The shabbily-dressed, unkempt man sitting alone at the large cafeteria table looking only at the bag of chips he hungrily consumed. A small knot of middle-aged women in the corner laughing heartily, drawing annoyed glances from a quieter part of the room. The housekeeper pushing her cart from restroom to restroom, perfunctorily cleaning up after the steady stream of visitors. The elderly couple checking their watches, anxiously watching the status board. The gowned patient with the tube taped to her nose, noiselessly escorting her IV stand to the end of the hall. Maybe they saw me, too, with my tote bag of crossword puzzles and bottled water.
There’s no way, of course, to know what’s in someone’s heart; we judge people by their behavior and assign our own meaning to their actions. But just as we want people to treat us with compassion and respect, we must do the same. We must learn to look beyond the overt, and resist the urge to ascribe our own interpretations. We must not be so quick to assume, and instead, we must try to understand.
That short video spoke strongly to me. It said I need to try harder. It is far too easy for me to merely respond to the actions and not consider the reason. What if I could step into their skin for a moment? Would I treat people more gently and with greater kindness?
I may not see from their eyes, but I can be “a little kinder than necessary,” as Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie put it.
Watch the video. Learn the lesson.
photo credit Nina Matthews Photography