Each day presents us with opportunities to have an impact on the lives of other people, for good or bad. We have a choice as to how we will respond when life becomes complicated. I encourage you to choose compassion. Here is a beautiful email I received many years ago from a friend, and reprint with her permission.
I was sitting on a plane down to Phoenix AZ in the window seat. A 91 year old woman was next to me, and next to her was a 40 something professional looking woman named Diane. We all chatted pleasantly about the previous Mother’s Day activities, and the older woman was telling us about her children. The plane took off and we all shut our eyes for three seconds. Suddenly, a child became upset. She was SCREAMING. She was in the seat in front of me. We all looked at one another and shrugged. This was going to be our flight. So, we took out our books, and magazines, and immediately felt sorry for the child. Her ears must have been hurting. She looked like she was about three when I peeked at her when we sat down.
The screaming continued.
We were trying to decide what the child was saying. It sounded like “potty” or something like that, and Diane and I were getting worried for this child’s welfare. I tried to peek between the seats without any luck. It seemed that the mother was restraining the screaming and crying child – and she would rest for a few minutes before starting up again, so we couldn’t tell what was going on with this little family.
The screaming continued.
Passengers began to turn around and give the seat in front of me dirty looks of exasperation and frustration. People were talking about it, and the plane was full and no one could move away from the screaming child.
I stood up and had to lean over the seat to look at this child’s mother, and there were tears streaming down the mother’s cheeks. I asked her if she needed a break, and told her that I have three kids at home, and I know how hard it is if she would like a break. The child didn’t look at me.
The mother looked at me with more tears and said in English (which was not her first language), “Please…tell people…my daughter is Autistic…there is nothing I can do…” so I offered the mother water, and she declined.
I felt that I was staring into you.
Then I started to get angry. Who the heck do these passengers think they are that they give HER dirty looks? When I went to sit down the angry eyes were all on me, and I told them all in an angry voice, “Read a book. The child and mother will be okay.”
Suddenly, the passengers around me went from being angry to being curious – what was wrong? Should the Captain know? I explained it was a medical condition, and the child was safe and would be okay, but they should stop staring. Surprisingly, they did.
The crying and screaming continued for another 45 minutes, and then miraculously the child and mother fell asleep. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
I couldn’t stop thinking about you. How many times have YOU been in a situation like this when you just needed someone to help just a little bit? I kept wondering what would help, and I did give the woman tissues. I did offer help, but she didn’t want my help, and was doing the best she could. I wish I knew Spanish so I could have helped more!
It really opened my eyes to your situations, and I appreciate you starting your blog so I was sensitive to the family right away.
The first time I read this story I began to weep. When I got to the part that read, “I stood up and had to lean over the seat to look at this child’s mother, and there were tears streaming down the mother’s cheeks,” I began to sob, and continued to do so until the end. While I have not been in a situation quite this extreme I can still relate so much, and I felt incredibly sad WITH her. As my son has gotten older meltdowns have become increasingly rare, but I remember that horrible, helpless feeling all too well. Many times in the past I was overwhelmed by the actions of the screaming, twisting preschooler that I was trying so desperately to hold in my arms in a public place. It is gut-wrenching to watch your child struggle against themselves and not be able to do anything to help them. As much as it upsets me I can only imagine how it must be even more terrifying for a child to experience. When it happens in a public place it makes things even worse because you can feel the harsh eyes of judgement upon you. Sometimes I just wanted to yell at those gawkers, to EXPLAIN, ask them not to judge (and a few times I could not resist the urge to give them a piece of my mind, but that is a story for another day). Sometimes all you can do is weep as you try to love, comfort, and protect your child as best you can.
My friend wrote, “I did offer help, but she didn’t want my help.” I can say from personal experience that it probably wasn’t that the mother didn’t want help, but instead that there was little to be done that COULD help (except what my friend did). Besides tissues and comfort there was not much else that would help except time. The child needed time to be allowed to calm herself down, and the mother needed to hold her baby tight (no hands free for water) and comfort her until the storm had passed. If anyone else had tried to hold the child she likely would have found that even more upsetting. Plus the child was at risk or hurting herself or other people, so it was safest for her to be with Momma.
But my friend DID help. She helped defuse a difficult situation by giving the other passengers a lesson in compassion. She exposed the error in their hasty judgements. She snapped them out of their self-righteous indignation and made them aware that it was NOT simply bad parenting or an unruly child. I felt so bad for that poor child. She must have been so terrified and frustrated by the experience of riding on a noisy airplane in a confined space. And just in case you are sitting there thinking, “Then they shouldn’t have gotten on a plane!”, well, sometimes you HAVE to! Parents of children with special needs cannot always keep them at home, out of the public eye, all the time. Sometimes they have to brave potentially difficult situations and hope for the best. The mother probably didn’t know it was going to be that bad, but the unexpected happens despite the most careful planning. Yes, it was inconvenient to the other passengers, and that is unfortunate. It was a frustrating situation for everyone. Life can be inconvenient.
How many times had I wished, when my son was younger and acting in a way that seemed inappropriate for public places, that someone would show me some kindness and understanding? So many days I struggled to even get out of the store, tears of sadness and frustration and embarrassment streaming down my cheeks, because my child was suddenly on sensory overload and lost control. It would have helped me hold my head so much higher if just one person had looked at me and said soothingly, “I know, kids act this way sometimes.” Or if they had simply NOT been impatient when they were stuck behind me in the checkout line and I was taking WAAAY too long because my children were upset and I was trying to keep my youngest from taking his aggression out on his older brother’s flesh. Or maybe if they just held the door for me and helped me with my bags because my child was grabbing the doorframe and refusing to leave. And you know what, sometimes people have done those things for me. And I was, and still remain, INCREDIBLY grateful.
So the next time you hear a screaming child in the store, or see a parent struggling with their child, I encourage you not to choose judgement. You have no idea what their story may be or what kind of day they have had. Maybe you could choose instead to offer a hand or even just a smile. You could choose compassion.
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