The whole thing lasted maybe 10 seconds.
In the blink of an eye, I sped past their car this morning— parked on the righthand shoulder of I-294, near Chicago — watching the scene play out from several angles, all while I traveled at 80 miles per hour.
Through my windshield, I watched the man exit the passenger side of the car, rushing quickly down an embankment toward a brambly swamp, leaving the door swinging and wide open.
At the very moment I passed them, a woman jumped out of the driver’s side, running around the front of their car and over to the man, her arms outstretched.
Just after I passed them, I watched in my rearview mirror as the woman reached the man, placing a hand on his back as he stood, hunched over, with his hands on his knees and his head hung low.
I wanted to know what had just happened.
Was he sick from a night of too much drinking?
Had he just received a horrible call that his sister had died?
Had a stomach bug hit from out of the blue?
Perhaps the couple had just broken up?
Maybe he was undergoing chemo?
For just ten seconds, I had these people in my sights, and though I do not, and never will, know their story, I care about them because I have been that man, prone and hunched and comforted by another, and I have been that woman, helpless, yet eager to stand with someone in distress.
As I continued driving, I could see in my mirror that they hadn’t activated their hazard lights to let other drivers know they were struggling. So clearly caught off guard by their circumstances, they were, and my heart ached as the distance between us increased.
There’d been such an urgency in their exchange, such vulnerability, such exposure. How could they, in that moment, realize anyone else noticing their plight? The only thing they could do was to get through that moment.
I tried to reset my view on the road ahead of me, though my memories took me back to some times in my life, when I, too, experienced moments of distress. I recalled the times when I’d also fled from horrible situations…times I felt overcome with emotion…and times when I’d felt anything but strong. In some of those moments, others were there to offer outstretched hands. And during some of those times, I refused their comfort — not because I didn’t want or need it, but because I told myself I had to be strong.
I’m someone one who’s rarely felt secure in the passenger seat, and so, during the tougher moments in my life — times of melancholy or overwhelm, when I longed to feel less so — I ached to feel more in control. At times, when others — who seemed less sad or melancholy — extended their comfort or their strength, I am ashamed to say I refused to accept it.
In those moments, as I screeched to a halt on the shoulder of my own life, I compared and contrasted others’ strength to my (perceived) weakness. I’d recoil from their gestures, not because I didn’t want their help, but because I didn’t know how to accept it or hold it without feeling worse about myself. I cared too much about how it looked — to have a back hunched over, to have heaving emotions, to struggle to just remain upright. I despised feeling pitied. It was the last thing I could manage, balancing my own feelings of sadness with others’ worries about me.
When I’d shun comfort from others, my actions were more about how I felt about myself (low), rather than anything I felt toward them. God, I wanted to feel steady and okay, but I’d convinced myself I needed to get there on my own. I have to lift my own self up, I reasoned. I have to rely on me, and no one else. If I ever face something like this alone, I’ll fail unless I can get myself through it.
What I’ve learned over the past three years, having been through more than I can ever describe here, is that I am strong enough to weather distress. We all are.
I’ve also learned that life is hardly black or white, and that we can come to an utter standstill for a while, then merge back onto the open road.
I’ve learned there is no shame, no embarrassment, no judgment involved when others comfort us in our grief, and that we’ve no obligation to hold their emotions when they choose to offer us a hand. Sometimes, in fact, they offer as a way to help themselves, to assuage their own pain, to help regain their own sense of control, and to help clear the brush from their own driver’s seats.
We all encounter moments when the road is not clear, when we’re forced to pull over, to release our inner pain. We all become entangled, to some degree, by the brambles and weeds and sharp edges of life. We may opt to barrel through these moments, hiding our morass, leaving our doors closed, and sealed, and locked — sending signals that we’ve got this under more control than we really do.
Or we can stop.
And get out.
If we’re lucky, there’s someone with us who has our back…whose outstretched hand remains steady — even if it is, at first, refused.
But keep in mind: we are all observed and cared for, often more than we realize, even by those who will never know our stories.