It was a very ordinary day.
In just a few short days it would be Christmas and I was working at the busiest store in town…it was shoulder to shoulder in the store, but I was about to experience how connecting with a stranger could change your soul. I volunteered to work a particular spot in the store because nobody else liked this spot and it was widely felt nothing extraordinary ever happened here. I liked the magic that could happen in this spot. It was the small moments that connecting with strangers could bring. Connecting with strangers…it’s good for the soul.
Wendy was a very unassuming women, dressed for a rugged winter day, I could see it on her face she just wanting to get what she came for and get out. She approached me with a new iPhone case and I took the handheld device out of my back pocket to help her with this quick, mindless transaction. This should have taken about 30 seconds….but I found a stranger’s story so compelling, it’s impact will be in on mind and in my heart forever.
The transaction begins
I rang up Wendy’s iPhone case and her credit card was rejected. My mind quickly choosing the words to minimize the situation and reassure her it was ok. The look on her face told me this was the edge and she was being pushed over it. Her eyes filled quickly with tears and I could see a quiver across her lips. She apologized. She said “I’m sorry. Things have just been so difficult since my husband died”. I put my arm around her shoulder and told her how sorry I was. As I tried to offer words of support, I stroked her back.
She had been holding her emotions together until I, a stranger, showed her a little bit of kindness and empathy. Suddenly she couldn’t hold on to her emotions any more. Wendy began to sob on my shoulder like a toddler who couldn’t catch their breath. Wendy told me the story of her life with her husband, how he died and how she’s lost without him and I wrapped both of my arms around her. I could feel the despair as I held her in my arms and I couldn’t let her go.
Listening and Responding
After I listened to Wendy, I comforted her, then I pulled her off my shoulder, grabbing her by both arms and told her she wasn’t alone. “Wendy, your husband sounds like an amazing man. I know you miss him desperately. I’ve been through loss in my life too and I know the pain you feel. I know the hardest thing to do is figure out how to live with such grief. It’s not a matter of handling your grief, it’s about choosing to live….choosing to look for happiness again.
I told Wendy I was sure, based on what she had just told me, her husband would not want her living a life of tears and pain. “Wendy, you’ve got the best medicine right in the palm of your hand.” I pulled my own iPhone out of my back pocket and told her “Music isn’t enough….Walking isn’t enough…..Talking to people isn’t enough….but if you put them all together it can be magic. I shared the playlist I carefully crafted with songs that made me walk with a little bounce in my step. I reassured her “you’re not going to FEEL better immediately, but I do believe if you behave your way into choosing a well lived life, the feeling will catch up to you”.
“Wendy, I want you to put your tennis shoes on everyday. Put those earbuds in your ears and walk down to this store and say hello to me. I’m always here.”
She nodded, dried her tears and walked out of the store. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see her again.
Later that evening,
I was making sure everybody handled their closing responsibilities. Almost all of the customers had started leaving the store, so when someone walks in, we all noticed. I looked up and there was Wendy! She had another woman in tow and I could see her scanning the store like she was looking for something. My first initial instinct told me she brought somebody back to help her get that iPhone case. Our eyes met and we walked towards each other. I smiled and told her I was glad to see her….and she smiled back.
She introduced me to her sister-in-law….her deceased husbands sister. Wendy not only had a smile on her face this time, she even carried herself differently. I could tell Wendy had shared our entire encounter together with her sister in law. “Pam, this is the person I was telling you about”. I asked Pam if she liked music and would help Wendy find some additional tunes to put on her iPhone for her walking playlist. I had given her a list of my personal favorite guilty pleasures. They were songs very well suited for walking….singing or just feeling good while I got my self through some inane chore.
Pam nodded and said, “Oh Wendy, those Black Eye Pea kids are great, they even say Mazel tov in their song!”
Wendy said, “We want to take you out to dinner!”. The store closed earlier on Sunday, so it was the dinner hour. I had to decline….That night we were shooting a music video in the store as our “Christmas Card” to all the other stores. It was silly fun and I had already committed.
A little night music
The store closed and we started the production of our little music video…a bunch of twnety somethings singing and dancing around the store along with yours truly. I called myself the Grannie Smith of the Apple store because I was old enough to be everybody’s mother, but still just a little tart. As we danced and sang our hearts out, I could see Wendy and Pam outside with their faces pressed against the glass watching….and laughing.
Wendy started coming to the store everyday. Training at the store taught her how to use her computer to make a book for her children. The book was a memorial of her husband. The entire process was so cathartic to Wendy. You could see the changes in her physically. She wasn’t shy about telling people about why she comes to the store everyday….It was a good place to be.
Whenever Wendy came into the store she’d search me out and let me know she was ok. She’d walk by, touch my arm and give me a smile that let me know she was doing ok. I always felt great after I saw her. Her adult children stopped in and let me know they were all doing well. I felt like I had become part of the family.
My Lesson Learned: Connecting with Strangers…It’s good for the soul
I heard a speaker years ago at a corporate retreat talking about communication. He used a phrase that has stuck with me for years. He said people really aren’t happy with achieving independence….true happiness comes from learning how to live “inter dependently” with each other. If we learn to help each other and allow others to help us, it brings a level of satisfaction we don’t know if we’re acting solo, or independently. Acting interdependently was merely a quotable quote until I connected with a stranger.
One woman was frozen in grief, the other woman needed to be needed. This one small moment shared in a crowded store changed both of us. If we both hadn’t open ourselves up to a stranger, we would have missed out on a very important moment in our lives.
Being present and connecting with the strangers around you make chance encounters like this possible. Make eye contact, “read the room” & speak up. I did the talking that day, and she showed me how to walk the talk. She walked through grief with grace and I took mental notes the whole time. She let me know every moment after we met just how grateful she was…That day both Wendy and I were interdependent and the residual effects will last forever.
Connecting with Strangers…It’s good for the soul.
Even Psychology Today agrees!
We’ll talk later,