Last Monday, I found myself walking in the LAX airport, searching for a soda and trying to get to my 10,000th step before boarding a plane to head home to Houston. It’s a busy airport. Really, really busy.
You know how there are some people who are blissfully unaware of the existence of others as they move through the world? They stop in the middle of paths, their grocery carts block access, they bump into people and don’t say “Excuse me” because they are so clueless?
I am not one of those people.
I am the person who’s constantly ducking out of the way of oblivious elbows and shopping carts and jaywalkers.
So as I walked, I observed the people I shared the vast, echoing space with. There was a young man, clad in orange safety vest, uniform, and work boots, sitting on a low tile wall just near the Lemonade restaurant, head down in his hands. His shoulders were slumped, he seemed so very despondent. I wondered, is he okay?
And I kept walking. Gotta get the steps in.
When I returned, he was still there. Head still down. Shoulders still slumped. I kept walking. Did another full round of the terminal. He’s still sitting. And I start to wonder if maybe he needs something, maybe he’s gotten bad news, maybe he’s lonely. I resolve to stop and ask if he’s still sitting when I finish the lap of the terminal.
When I finish, he is, in fact, still there, and I find myself facing a test. No one but me knew of my resolution. I processed a whole lot of excuses as I stood to the side of the tide of people rushing to their gate:
He’s a stranger.
I’m an introvert.
He might be dangerous.
He might think I am weird.
He might not speak English.
It’s not my business.
I am in a hurry. What if they call my plane to start boarding?
I might be rejected.
That’s the big one, isn’t it? Rejection.
I took a deep breath, I crossed to him, touched his shoulder, and asked, “Are you okay?”
He looked at me with eyes rimmed red, fatigue carved into lines beside his mouth, surprise evident in his expression, and replied, “I’m just so tired.” And he started talking, almost without prompting, as though he really just needed to. Seems he’d worked six straight 16-hour days, and had four more to go before a break. He fills jets with fuel, and it’s hot on the tarmac, he’d come in to just cool off for an hour on his lunch break. We chatted. I held my hand up for a high five that turned into a tight clasp as we looked into each other’s eyes, strangers, and told each other to hang on.
It was just a small moment of connection, nothing earth-shattering, just a couple of moments in which one human talked to another. No screens, no agenda, no products to sell or meetings to schedule, just connection without cost.
I believe connection is the thing each of us needs most. Real, authentic, meaningful connection with another person. Attentive listening accompanied by unguarded eye contact. Stillness that says, “I am here, I am hearing you, I am not rushing away to my next thing. I will plant myself here and wholly attend to what you’re saying.”
And you know what? I asked that man if he was okay, and I was the one who walked away healed. I cried tears for a moment, somehow flooded with feelings in that moment that needed to leak out my eyes. A week later and I am still weeping over that moment. That tiny little conversation followed by a hand clasp.
Why, I wonder? I think it’s because I let my protective shell crack open a little. Like poet Leonard Cohen says, a crack is “how the light gets in.” I cracked open, and light has been doing the work of washing away some hurts old and new. Washing them away in tears. Not sad tears, but cleansing ones.
I don’t know the name of the man I spoke to at LAX last Monday, I hope he had a good week. I hope he got some rest Friday. I hope he spent some time loving and being loved on his first day off after a busy holiday filled with harried travelers.
I meant to be the one doing the healing, instead I was healed myself. That’s how connection works. How risk pays off. How resilience grows.
Friend, are you okay today?