Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Strange Kindness

I once dated a man who called me “counter-dependent,” meaning that I take independence to an unhealthy extreme. He was probably right, and this kind of my-by-self two-year-old attitude is not easy to pull off when you have a chronic illness. A couple of years ago I had an experience that pointed to some of what might drive this difficulty with receiving assistance.

In the second year of what was supposed to be a three year sabbatical (more on that in later posts- let's just say it falls under the Be Careful What You Wish For category) I went to Mexico, to a natural hot spring retreat in the mountains where I had been before. My health was not strong, but this is a place where people often go to recuperate from surgery, cancer and other illnesses, so the proprietors are diligent about water quality and food preparation. I say this because it’s not generally a great idea for someone with a compromised immune system to go where they cannot count on these things, but I had good cause to feel reasonably safe.

On my return trip, riding the bus from the airport terminal to the plane I started to feel a little dizzy. By the time the plane took off I was having chills, sweats, a stomach ache and vertigo. For those of you who have never picked up a nasty bacteria, (E.Coli, C.Difficile, Salmonella etc.) it’s like the flu times one thousand. Based on previous experience I knew that if I went to the airplane restroom I was going to spend the whole trip there, and risk passing out in a less than optimal position. So, I decided to stay put and try to get through it.

It got worse. A lot worse. The woman next to me appeared to be with a group of Asian travellers who had boarded together and occasionally called out to each other in a language I didn’t recognize. She appeared to be in her sixties, with a short sturdy body, dark hair and a broad face. At one point, as a chill shook me like a leaf in the wind, she got up, opened the overhead bin and gestured to me, offering her winter coat. I shook my head no. I was nauseous, and didn't want to worry about someone else's coat if things got. . . .well, more out of my control.

Some time later, my hands started to go numb. Alarmed, I hit the call button. The steward, looking annoyed, asked if there was a doctor on board and a young Danish physician took my pulse. He decided I wasn’t having a stroke, and we did not need to put the plane down prematurely. I apologized to the stewards who were looking and sounding increasingly irritated as they made me fill out a form protecting the airline from liability. Marginally convinced that I was not dying, I held on, alternating between hot flashes and violent chills.

Leaning my head against the window I gave up trying to stop the shaking. And then I felt something warm. I looked up to see the small woman from the seat next to me, wrapping her soft, red, wool coat around me. I tried to protest but in the universal language of comfort she just said, “Shhhh, shhhh. . . .” as she tucked the coat around me, and gently but firmly stroked my arms.

And in that moment, I was undone. I could take the indifference and hostility of the airline stewards. I could be stoic even though I was in pain and alone. But this kindness from a stranger, this giving of comfort, contact and her own garment, made my throat constrict and my eyes fill with tears. She sat back down next to me and patted my knee, looking concerned.

When we landed, still shaking, I handed the coat back to her, said “Thank you,” and motioned for the woman to disembark with her group, not wanting to even try moving before everyone else was off the plane. I passed out and was still there when the folks who gather the garbage between flights found me.

I keep thinking about how much this woman’s kindness touched me and how it offered me an insight into why it is sometimes so hard to receive. If we are hanging on by our finger nails, steeling ourselves against our own or the world's suffering, kindness can feel dangerous. It opens our hearts to our own or another’s pain. This woman's compassion showed me how infrequently I expect or even see the assistance that may be offered to me when somewhere deep inside I am caught in the belief that I must be “strong” to get through. It reminded me that compassion does not necessitate heroic acts or grand gestures, but a willingness to be with another and offer what we can. And it strengthened my conviction that small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect of blessings we cannot even imagine.


  1. I don't know why we have to be so stoic, but I have nearly done myself in at times by being thus. I don't know, I suppose I felt that anyone giving anything to me, had an agenda. But I didn't expect anyone to feel that way if I gave something to them. Weird, isn't it?

    The thing is, we have to accept that receiving is just as much a part of abundance as giving... like opposite sides of the self-same coin... inseparable... reciprocity.


  2. When I was a child, my mom used to tell me..."Don't just stand there...DO SOMETHING!" So, for many years, I was always doing SOMETHING. It didn't matter what it was, what mattered was...that I did SOMETHING. Not too long ago, a friend told me that I needed to learn how to relax and take care of myself...because my world was caving in on my head, in spite of all of the "somethings" that I was frantically doing. "How?", I asked. This is what he said to me..."Don't just do something! STAND THERE!!" What a delightful twist. It was almost as if I were the shaking, fever then chills, scared but determined Oriah on that plane. What he said to me was as compassionate as a hand on my knee to let me know that I was not alone. I was emotionally bankrupt...and he put his coat around me.

    I imagine that this recollection doesn't truly relate here...but, for some reason, your story brought him back into my mind...and I am grateful. His observations are as timely as yours.

  3. Dear Oriah,

    I am shocked by the utter self-centeredness of the airline staff.

    But sometimes we need these circumstances to highlight and counterpoint the Gift (the lady showing selfless kindness)?

    With love, Peter.

  4. What an insightful post. I know the feeling of sometimes having a difficult time accepting kindness like that. I freely offer it to others but have had a life of needing to be self sufficient, even from a young age, so sometimes feel like an alien receiving it from someone else. We need to be able to give and receive - it completes the cycle and creates equilibrium, which gives balance in such a way that the energy of kindness can go on endlessly.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts...and also thanks for writing "The Invitation". I stumbled across it a few years ago during an awakening of my own. I suppose you could say that it found me, because is seemed to leap off the table at me! It spoke to my soul at that time and was very inspiring. So I thank you for sharing it with the world.


  5. Peter- well as a flight attendant pointed out to my on my FB page (after reading this) they have a sometimes difficult and often under appreciated job. No doubt they have their story of that day- although I did think that leaving me unconscious on the plane after they'd asked me to wait until everyone else was off, was a bit much. I put their attitude in the story mostly because I was aware that in some ways I was easily able to stay stoic about the annoyance- it was the kindness that made me open my heart to myself.

  6. Thank you for sharing this experience with your readers, remiding us that sometimes when we are most vunerable, it is the kindness of strangers that reaches out to us, asking nothing in return.

  7. Dependence - I am who you say I am.

    Independence - I am who I say I am.

    Interdependence - I am who I am because of how I am when I am with you.

    Counterdependence - ?

  8. Maybe - Interdependence - I am with. . .

    Counterdependence- I am not with. . . .

    embodied soul- I am

  9. The kindness of a stranger is often more heart-warming than that of our best friend. Why? Perhaps because we don't expect someone who doesn't know us to care about us. After stories such as this, how beautiful it is to see that this is an inaccurate perception of the sea of "strange" faces surrounding us every day.

    Your airplane anecdote reminded me of an airport story of my own, which was not as physically stressful as yours Oriah, but an example of "strange" kindness nonetheless. When I was sixteen, I was travelling by myself for the first time. I grabbed lunch at the airport food court which consisted of a smoothie and a bagel. As I went to sit down, I tripped and the smoothie went FLYING. The pink fruity drink splattered all over the floor and my clothes. I was embarassed, yet not surprised by my clumsiness. I found an airport employee whom I persuaded to give me a mop. When I came back to the mess, I found two kind, "strange" faces. One on their hands and knees, cleaning the mess with napkins off the floor. The other standing with a smoothie they had bought to replace the one I had dropped.

    I am grateful for humanity's common bond in compassion and empathy, in even the smallest of circumstances.

    Also, I think your post Oriah is a much needed reminder for myself to "pay it forward"- every day.

    As always, thank you for your insights Oriah. They are truly a breath of fresh air for my soul every week.


  10. Oh, Oriah. Your posts always open my heart. Thank you for giving us the great gift of your reflections.

  11. I have my own story from many years ago when I was a young woman- and it too happened on a plane. I had had a horrific experience where I had been kidnapped for a week and raped repeatedly. I managed somehow to get away and get on a plane home. On the flight I was still in shock and although I hadn't really allowed my self to cry yet- because I knew that when I did the floodgates would open and I needed my own space to do that- so I had a very restrained and icy demeanour- almost forbidding. Certainly I wasn't talking to anyone. Partway through the flight a woman tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a note. In it she said she could tell that I was upset, and she wanted me to know that she cared. And if I wanted to talk, that was fine, and if not, that was fine too. I could barely look at her, because her kindness affected me more than she knew- but I didn't want to lose it in public. I kept that note with me for years until it disintegrated. And it reminded me not only that kindness is one of the keys to healing, but also that when we offer a kindness we may not realize what a deep impact it has. I've thought of that woman often and wanted to thank her for her compassionate insight- seeing beyond the stony faced young woman to see the pain inside. She may have thought it made no difference, but it did, oh it did.

  12. I think that many of us have that notion of having to do everything ourselves. Perhaps, we think it better to be independent and not have to rely on any one else, or maybe we want to appear strong and capable of handling our own lives. It could even be that we don't want to bother anyone with what should be our own problems.
    After my divorce my thinking changed. I found myself stressed out trying to do everything I did when married plus take on the added responsibilities of my ex-husbands household jobs. I began to wonder how in the world it could all get done. I thought about asking for some help but discarded that idea until a sunday sermon shed light on receiving help. The priests words reminded us that we should all be good Samaritans and offer help. Then he added a twist- "If no one accepts help then no one can be a good samaritan." He essentially told us all to accept others help so that everyone had a chance to be giving and kind. Soon after when a neighbor offered to help me with yardwork, my gut instinct wanted to say NO but remembering his words I accepted. I am finding it much easier now to both give and recieve assitance when needed.

  13. Oh I am so sorry to hear about your ordeal. When I was a young woman I was raped- and I cannot imagine getting on a plane alone afterwards. All I wanted to do was find a hole and crawl in (in fact I did spend some time under a desk rolled into a ball.) thank you for sharing your story. I think sometimes we don't help because we don't want to intrude. the woman in your story found what the Buddhists would call "right means" to offer support and kindness without invading your space. How lovely!

  14. Thank you fellow independent traveler! I too struggle with the foot stomping 2-year-old who insists on doing things by herself. My fear, more aptly terror, at deep connection with others plagues me to this day. The closer I get the more afraid I become. Once the jig is up and I find myself depending upon someone, the terror is real though mostly unconscious. I am encouraged when I read your words as I know others have been to similar places and moved beyond them. I too accept unacceptable behavior from those whose job it is to care for me. I am glad the universe cared for you. May you continue to be blessed with all that you need and the ability to receive it.

  15. I can relate to being counter dependent and have been told I am cold and keep my emotions in close check- the counter dependent caught my eye and your words and way of telling your story kept me reading-and I have to tell you, I teared up before you got there. The universe has a way of telling you stuff you need to hear and I heard it loud and clear...thank you