“What if I had your heart?
What if you wore my scars?
How would we break down?
What if you were me and what if I were you?
What if you told my lies?
What if I cried with your eyes?
Could anyone keep us down?
What if you were me and what if I were you?”
-Five for Fightng, What If
When my daughter Avery gets strep throat, she celebrates. She rejoices in full force because she cannot go to school until she’s had her antibiotics for 24 hours, yet she feels perfectly fine.
It’s a win-win.
That was precisely the case on this memorable day. With one dose of Amoxicillin down the hatch, she began her celebration. She announced to no one in particular that she would be having “alone time with Mom” while her medicine worked its magic and made her “stref throat un-contagious.”
I accepted the fact that I would not get much work accomplished that day, but I knew I would be enlightened in other ways. This particular child has that way about her.
After getting an ID tag for our cat Banjo, we headed to Avery's favorite fast-food restaurant. While I stood and line and ordered, she chose a cozy booth in the back. Within minutes, the server slid my tray of food across the counter towards me. As I reached for the tray, a young man wearing a pristine shirt with the restaurant logo stepped forward. With a solemn expression he asked, “May I carry it?”
The man’s tone was unfriendly and lacked emotion, but his eyes said otherwise. I could have very well carried that tray myself, but I felt the need to oblige. I could tell he wanted to assist and I should accept.
The tall young man with sandy brown hair stiffly carried our food to the table. Along the way, I asked him how his day was going. His mechanical use of pat phrases reminded me of some of the students I taught in special education.
He sat down the tray in front of my daughter, and I smiled and thanked him. He did not smile back but simply nodded and strode off to see if other customers needed assistance.
“Is he special, Mama?” my daughter asked curiously while opening her ketchup. For years she’s heard so many stories about my former students with behavioral and learning difficulties that she can actually refer to them by name.
“Yes, he is. His job is to carry trays, put trash in trashcans, refill drinks, and things like that,” I explained.
As she inserted her straw into the creamy milkshake, she smiled brightly, “I am glad he has that job. Out of all the jobs in a restaurant, I think the helper job is the perfect job for him,” she said confidently before taking a long sip.
A few minutes later, the young man came back and asked if I needed a refill on my drink. I told him I would love a refill and what beverage I was drinking.
“Remove the lid,” he said robotically.
With short, quick strides he returned with a cup that was filled to the brim. Because it had no lid, the soda spilled when he set the cup down. The look of distress filled his eyes and his face became flushed. I grabbed my napkin before the liquid could drip onto my lap.
I was just about to say it was okay, but my child beat me to the punch. And her response was far better than what I was planning to say. “That happens to me,” she said looking straight into the young man’s face with a reassuring smile.
She did not say the usual, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t worry about it.”
She said, “That happens to me.”
Who knew such love, compassion, understanding, and human kindness could be contained in four simple words?
The waiter looked down shyly, and I detected a slight sigh of relief. When he left, my daughter repeated her initial thoughts about the man. “I am glad he has that job. He is good at his job.”Apparently a little spilled soda didn’t make him any less of a good helper in her eyes.
A few minutes later, I carried our tray to the trash receptacle. Because she’d spent most of her time drinking the milkshake, Avery’s full glass of ice water went untouched. Much to my dismay, the paper cup tipped and hit the floor with a thud. As ice cubes and water spread across the floor, my eyes searched for our helpful friend. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found. Instead, a waitress came from behind the counter to survey the damage. She did not try to hide her displeasure.
“I am very sorry,” I said sincerely. “Luckily, it’s just water,” I added.
With a disapproving shake of her head, the waitress turned on her heel, probably to fetch a mop. There I stood in the middle of what was now a pretty good-sized puddle. I suddenly felt very small and slightly embarrassed. I was back in middle school, all eyes on the one who clumsily dropped her tray on the cafeteria floor.
The side door that lead to the drive-thru line suddenly burst open and there appeared the young man. Oddly, he didn’t even glance at the spill. Instead he looked directly into my eyes and said, “It’s all good.”
Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure his employee training didn’t include that line. Oh no, that line came straight from the heart.
It’s all good.
I looked down at my shoes, now dripping with moisture. The water had made its way around chair legs and into tile cracks. But when I looked at the way the liquid spread across the floor with absolutely no boundaries, a beautiful thought came to mind:
Compassion is contagious.
Just a few minutes prior to my H2O disaster, a little girl with uncombed hair and a milkshake mustache had offered kindness to a young man working hard at his job. When he made a mistake, she stepped into the mess with him by letting him know she makes mistakes too. Little did I know, he would offer kindness back to me when I was in need of a little compassion and understanding.
We are all just waiting for someone to notice—notice our pain, notice our scars, notice our fear, notice our joy, notice our triumphs, notice our courage.
And the one who notices is a rare and beautiful gift.
I'd once written those words about Avery and her perceptive way of seeing the world and those around her. But in that moment, I knew there was more to that theory:
The one who notices and responds with empathy can create a ripple effect. Because compassion spreads … compassion is contagious.
I suddenly faced an uncomfortable truth about myself. I know how important it is to respond with empathy, but in my daily life I often forget the power of compassion. Among the busyness and the hurry, honest mistakes became bigger deals than they actually are. Among the daily distractions and pressures, small blunders are treated like major catastrophes. How easy it is to sigh with exasperation as if my whole day is ruined by one tiny mistake that might inconvenience my life for a whole two minutes. How easy it is to forget that I make mistakes too.
As Avery and I walked hand in hand through the restaurant parking lot, it was clear why I felt so inclined to pay attention that day. It was so I could write the following manifesto and try my best to live it each and every day I am blessed to be alive:
Let us notice each other’s pain and ambivalence.
Even if we are different.
Even if we don’t wear the same clothes.
Even if we don’t have the same job or the same IQ.
Because in our hearts, we are more alike than we are different.
Let us acknowledge each other’s slip-ups and failures with compassion and grace.
Even if it does cause a mess.
Even if it takes a moment of our time.
Even if it’s the last thing we feel like doing.
Because in our eyes, we are all just looking for someone to stand beside us in our mess.
Let us respond with patience to the mistakes of our children.
Even if we’ve never made such a mistake.
Even if we saw it coming.
Even if we are at our wit’s end.
Because in our memory banks, we can all remember standing in the school cafeteria with the eyes of judgment upon us.
Let us notice when someone is struggling to get it right, fit in, or please.
Even if it’s not perfect.
Even if their hands shake.
Even if someone else does it far better.
Because in our souls, we are all hungry for acceptance.
Today my goal is to take a page from Avery’s book:
to rejoice in the day ahead
to notice and respond compassionately to efforts and emotions
to let no one stand alone in their mess by saying, “That happens to me too.”
Will you join me? I believe these aspirations, carried out individually and collectively, have the power to heal what ails the world.
The story you just read is an excerpt from my second book, HANDS FREE LIFE. Through truthful storytelling and nine life-changing Habit Builders, I show readers how to respond to their loved ones and themselves with more patience, presence, acceptance, and love despite daily distractions and societal pressures. Gifting someone with one of my books is a huge blessing to me. It helps my publisher know my work is valued and should continue. I have also written HANDS FREE MAMA which answers the questions many people ask after visiting my site such as, “How do let go of my distractions and scale back my over-scheduled life?” and “How can I find my long-lost joy?” My third book, ONLY LOVE TODAY: Reminders to Breathe More, Stress Less, and Choose Love, releases on 3/7 and is currently available for pre-order.
For other meaningful and unique gifts for the holidays, please check out the leather bracelets, metal cuffs, hand-lettered prints, and vintage t-shirts in the Hands Free Shop — they are excellent visual reminders that love makes good things possible. Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution community. I cherish your love and support.