Compassionate Strangers

One of my favorite questions to ask strangers is some form of, what do you love about life?

A week’ish ago I pulled out this question just a few minutes into a conversation with the woman behind me in line for the bus to Albany.

I love asking this same, simple question is because the answers are always varied and often surprising, in the best of ways.

Her answer? It came pretty quick and was quite clear:

People’s ability to care and to show compassion for other people even if they have no relationship with them.

The second reason I love asking this same, simple question is because the conversation then usually heads off into uncharted territory.

This uncharted territory is both for me (which, with a stranger, everything is pretty much uncharted), and – more importantly – for them.

She’s a new teacher in the NYC public school system and she told me about her challenging week.

One major question that confounds her:

How does one balance the need to control the classroom and garner respect from all students, while also knowing that some students who show disrespect to her or to others may know no other way to call out for help?

I don’t feel right sharing some of the details of this story, but one thing that I do feel comfortable sharing that truly blew me away was when she said this:

The worst thing about being a teacher is about encountering parents who don’t care. Parents who will save your number specifically so they won’t pick up when you call because they don’t want to hear about their child.

We talked a bit about experience we had abroad. When she learned I had spent quite some time living in China she immediately wondered aloud, I read something about how Chinese teachers spend a lot of time discussing strategies for classes, much more so than in America. Is this true?

Our conversation extended from the line, through the bus delay, and all the way to Albany. Teaching in New York, China, Cuba, Pakistan, relationships, love, Humans of New York, and more were the topics of the evening.

She told me at one point that she doesn’t usually talk to strangers.

What was it that lead to a stranger conversation that day?

Did she just need someone to talk to?

Was it a conversation that took an unfamiliar twist after a short warm-up of regular chit-chat?

Something else?

Maybe if the result was so excellent for everyone involved, the reason’s not all that important?

Do you think it’s possible to find compassion – and comfort – in an interaction with a stranger?

Maybe you’ve experienced it before?

When was the last time?

What was it like?

Are You Okay?

I met Charles Vogl a couple months ago. I’ve been to plenty of presentations that talk about sharing ideas. I typically attend multiple in-person talks each week. I’m a lover of TED. And I was extremely impressed with the workshop he delivered one Friday afternoon.

Charles spoke about connecting to your idea and sharing that story with others in a way that was so deeply personal, that I continue to think about it off and on now almost months removed.

Have you thought about how much what you do matters to you?

How you thought about the why’s behind why it really matters to you at the core? How about why it matters to others?

This may not be for everyone, but it certainly was for me.

After the workshop, one thing lead to another, and Charles and I agreed that we’d take an adventure down to New York City for the best Chinese food America has to offer.

He was was convinced of this long ago and was eager to go back. I was curious.

We got a car. And drove to Queens. And, well, … you’ll have to give it a try for yourself.

But if you need any help, or a vote of confidence that the food is fantastic, I’d sure be happy to join you for your next meal at the New World Mall food court.

The Sunday we went down to Flushing, I was a bit late to pick up Charles. I don’t think he was psyched about it. But the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you okay?”

I had been a bit on edge, and there was more behind my being late than just being late. Though after he said that I immediately felt more at ease.

We ended up having a lovely discussion on the ride down to New York on life, love, and relationships.

Charles got me thinking how it can be the easiest thing in the world to get frustrated about something, especially with the people we love most. But, what else might be going on that we didn’t or don’t see?

In any situation, be it with someone you know or someone you don’t, you always have two choices – to be proactive or reactive.

Let me think aloud how I would describe these two choices –

To be reactive is to immediately react. That usually comes in the form of anger, criticism, or cutting commentary.

To be proactive is to seek to understand before judgement. It’s a much more empathetic approach, and a question like, “Are you okay?” is the natural starting point.

The next time you find yourself getting frustrated with someone for something, what would it take for you to choose,”Are you okay?” as the first thing you say to that person?

How might it change each of your feelings in that moment? Might it open you up to an important conversation about something that might lie a bit deeper? Or might it just make both of your days just a little bit better?