While I was in New York last week, I was on the subway platform waiting for the train when I realized that the woman to my left was crying into her hands. She wasn’t sobbing and it wasn’t audible, but she was clearly upset and when she glanced up, her face was blotchy with tears. I hesitated for a second. There weren’t many people around, but based on her body language (curled up, concealing her face), it seemed like she wanted to be left alone. Still, my instinct was to comfort — what if she and her boyfriend had just broken up? What if her grandfather had just suffered a stroke? I was completely drawn to her and felt filled with empathy and, strangely, warmth.
“There is something beautiful about a disarmed stranger,” writes Melissa Febos of the New York Times. “We usually only get to witness that kind of vulnerability with friends or family, when something — sympathy or apology — is expected of us.”
One time years ago, after a terrifying gun incident, I broke into sobs and was SO relieved when a stranger asked me if I was okay. I was desperate to tell someone and to be comforted, and he stayed with me for awhile until the shakes subsided. He was a dad, he told me, and his daughter was twelve. He didn’t mind being late to work, and I still think of him, how he searched his briefcase for tissues. On the other hand, if I were crying because of a personal issue, like boy problems or bad news, I might feel embarrassed and not want any attention, and even be grateful that New Yorkers, generally speaking, act unfazed by pretty much everything.
Have you ever approached a person crying in public? Do you give them space or offer a lending ear? The few heart to hearts I’ve had with complete strangers have been surprisingly intimate and rejuvenating — and those connections, however brief, have stayed with me for years.
Illustration by Nigel Van Wieck.