Smiling At Strangers
“There’s a familiar voice in my head as thoughts of fear and panic run through my mind, wishing for something to happen to me. For me, it’s never been thoughts of death – more along the lines of an accident, or disease, which would take me down a path to move back home. If something was to happen to me, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I find myself secretly wishing for something to happen to me, so the decision would no longer be in my control – it would be made for me and I would be set free. My first days in Singapore began with these thoughts, and it was a secret prayer I used to work through my panic. What if I was in an accident? What if I was diagnosed with cancer? I would get to move home. I would get to be with my family, with my friends. Please, God, let me go home.”
Claire wrote this to me in an email, a couple weeks after the interview, as an afterthought. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel about it, because it’s certainly not her navigating tenet in life. But these thoughts come up occasionally, and she felt safe enough to share it with me. Yes, Claire, this same scenario, along with ten other dark narratives, infiltrate my own thoughts on a daily basis. You are not alone. She joked about being thankful for having access to a member’s lounge, in an otherwise hectic airport, because she needed privacy to cry. Tucked away in a corner of some distant airport, Claire still struggles with what we all yearn for – to feel loved.
Her story isn’t fraught with crippling memories of trauma or abuse, yet I am still left completely rapt when I sit and listen to her open up about her tender heart. Pain is not measured by circumstance; it applies to the human condition on a fundamental level. Viktor Frankl famously wrote, “A person's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the space. Similarly, suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind – no matter if the suffering is considered great or little. Therefore, the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
Claire lives in Hong Kong. She is a standout at work. She circumnavigates the globe on a semi annual basis. Like so many of us, if you break her life down into variables of an equation and assess by way of arithmetic, then she is not supposed to be crying in the corner of an airport. But there she is, human and unresolved; and here I am, thinking she has a whole lot more figured out than I can ever hope to.
During the interview, I ask Claire where she thinks the pain comes from. “My dad – leaving when I was young. Watching my mom go through that heartbreak was devastating.” Claire’s mother was caught completely off guard when her dad announced, “I’m leaving you.” Claire’s older brother became angry, and the younger one retreated inside himself. So Claire was left as an emotional life raft for her mother to buoy on. The family moved back to California while Claire’s father stayed in Virginia, which made summers a confusing time because Claire’s father immediately remarried. But things aren’t as simple as vilifying the father, because he not only remained involved in the children’s lives; but he, too, was left to stumble through the anguish of life when one day young Claire said to him, “You’re hurting my mom. You’re hurting all of us. I never want to see you again.” I heard once that a decent barometer for success in life is the feelings that your children have toward you. Claire tells me, “Life is so strange, because now I truly believe my dad did find his soul mate. They are absolutely perfect for each other, and I love my stepmom.”
After college, Claire moved to San Francisco and went through the same motions many of us do. She had fun in the big city and never bothered to think about what patterns she may have harvested from unresolved story lines. She dated, but she never found a long-term relationship. “You chalk it up to – it’s SF, big city, and everyone’s just looking for something better. But I think I didn’t put in the effort, either. I think I always had only one toe in, because I was scared. I think I’m still scared. I know I’m still scared.” After a few dates most flings would fizzle out, but most of us don’t stop to look at these phenomena. Instead, we get on with life. Claire found herself excelling at her job, and that became her gauge for happiness, success, and fulfillment. Then came Singapore.
Claire seemed to have had the golden touch at work. Everything that management wanted fixed, they gave to Claire. She was trusted as a mender and problem solver; so when she was given the opportunity to transfer to Singapore, she easily agreed. What she found was resistance, judgment, and hostility. Upon her arrival, her team told her, “We don’t want you here.” It wasn’t only her direct reports who felt the need to offer stinging rebuke, but Claire’s boss would also hiss and fume when they interacted.” Every time I walked into her office, she looked me up and down. It was this judgment that happened first, before she even spoke to me. Then she would shoot down everything I suggested. Everything I said was wrong.”
What do we do when our keystone gets knocked out of place? If our life is assessed by outside evaluation, then how do we cope when that model collapses? “I kept working hard and hoping things would get better. But I also drank heavily, and that seemed to solve a lot – lots of alcohol over the years to deal with emotions. Also, I thought for a long time, especially in Singapore, that I didn’t need to find a relationship. I thought that I just needed to have sex, and that would heal me. So that was a streak for a while. Because I just needed to have that fix, and that would make things ok. I realize now it’s just a small piece in that process that I clung to. It was the physical contact that was therapeutic. I used to think, just lay on top of me. That’s all I need.”
We try so hard to reduce our needs into variables that can be adjusted, but we often find ourselves alone, splintered, and unwilling to rip off the mask we’ve used to identify who we think we are. “I cried every day. Thank God I lived in the hotel where I worked, because I would just run up to my room and lose it. Looking back on the experience in Singapore, I see the reality that I also didn’t want to be there. I was immersed in a culture different from anything I’d ever known so there was judgement on my side as well. Realizing I was an active player in the dance of resistance and judgement has been a big part of my life lesson from Singapore.“
Claire tells me that she had recently been in love for the first time, and that was 2 years ago, at the age of 34. She met somebody while traveling for business, and eventually they both worked up the nerve to admit to each other that they wanted to continue the fling. It was unexpected; not only because they were both airport denizens, but because he had a way of making her feel completely cared for. Or was it the fact that Claire was only focusing on wanting to feel cared for? When Claire had thought she finally met her life partner, she not only had to face her great heartbreak, but the scene was scripted in a similar poignant prose as the one her mother was forced to absorb. Claire’s boyfriend ended things unexpectedly, right at the point when Claire was fully surrendering her heart, so Claire was left alone and angry. Irony and suffering are not wicked twists on scripts for the amusement of an audience. Instead, they are the expressions of our deepest selves calling out when the time has come to awaken.
Claire remained angry for a long time. “It’s the familiar story you always know that you go back to. It’s easier to stay angry than to forgive, because you know how to be angry.”
“Why are we wired to be so accepting of anger on the inside?” I ask her.
“Forgiveness and letting go are uncomfortable, because then you’re alone. When you release that person from your story as the villain, then you’re left with the uneasy truth. The truth is that I battle a lot with self-esteem, with who I really am.”
Claire takes a brief pause from her story for a few seconds, leaving us with only ambient noise as filler. We are sitting on the floor of her hotel room, both cross-legged, and outside is a holiday ice rink. The balcony door is closed, but through the panes a faint aria is heard, only the high notes, as skims of children’s laughter occasionally suffuse into the space. Claire speaks elegantly, a mix between a monk and a therapist, so when she chokes on the pause and her eyes become red, I find a pressure up in my heart. That look – of fear, self-doubt, and yearning –is the look of a soul searching for connection, recognition, and validation. That is the look that can save the human race – our only hope for survival is to admit that we all do it.
“I owned into the belief that I wasn’t enough either, like my mom, because my dad left me, too. He left us. I think that will always be there and be something I have to work through –Will he leave? Will the love go away? I’m trying to rewrite that story, because I don’t want to believe that anymore. That’s something that I’ve been healing from in the past two years – in believing that I am enough, that I deserve the great love.”
“Can you give me an example of a kindness you have witnessed or participated in that gives you hope?”
“My community at work, from bosses to team members around the world, go out of their way to make sure that I feel cared for and supported. That is a huge act of kindness. My little niece gives me hope. Seeing old couples in love gives me hope. That’s one of the reasons I still like going to church. It’s mainly to look for those cute old couples.”
“Are you a believer?”
“Not in that sense. I like going to church, because it gives me that charge, that connection. It doesn’t mean that I have to believe everything they’re saying but the ceremonial act definitely gives me hope. When I hear someone sneezing, no matter what country I’m in, I will always say, Bless you. It’s just a little sprinkle of kindness for me to throw out to the world, and it always catches people off guard. Smiling at strangers, greeting people when you get into an elevator together, making eye contact and being intentional when saying thank you to someone – these are all examples of great kindness to me. I believe that there is so much kindness out there, and I believe that there is a tremendous need for people to continue to spread it as much as possible.”
I ask Claire about her relationship with her dad today. She offers a genuine smile, and I hear a note of equanimity between her words. By the time Claire went to college, her father had moved back to California, so Claire found herself spending entire weekends with him. “Without ever coming out and saying he was sorry, he would always do things to show his love.”
“Do you feel ok without hearing that apology from him?”
“I don’t need to hear it from him anymore. We have a connection that’s beyond that, and I don’t feel the anger I once did. I also love my stepmom. When I see them happy and in love, that heals me.”
I envy Claire’s mercy and amnesty. I am still struggling to accept my family, especially the ones who have not found it within themselves to offer words of reparation. But when I listen to the passive clemency she offers her father, I realize that I am lacking compassion for the people in my life who deserve it the most. Seed planted.
Claire is bright with all the nuances I admire. She prays everyday and doesn’t think much about fitting it into an orthodox stratum. “I’ll hear something or read a story and have a moment where I just put a prayer out there. I have a lot of friends who are going through difficult times, so I’ll offer them love or guidance through small prayers”
Claire does it all. She is a searcher. She is on the path, and her methods of healing are somewhere between eccentric and occult. While living in San Francisco, her neighbor left her corporate job to be a wellness coach. As soon as I hear that term, some voice in my head starts blurting out insults and judgments, but I’ve learned there is a difference between my first reaction and the softer voice inside that is guiding my intuition. I’ve realized that it’s not the method that’s important to me; it’s the desire to pull another person upwards that matters. I don’t believe that a talisman is naturally imbued with mystical powers, but I do believe that the people who give them to us can transfer a little piece of their souls inside. Similarly, I don’t think it’s the method of healing that’s important. It’s the silence between the words of the narrator, the connotation of grace, that is the leading factor for determining genuine intentions from avarice.
Claire finds great support from her wellness coach. “She’s turned into this amazing person that has just unpacked everything for me and helped me work through all this stuff. As an ancillary benefit from traveling a great deal for work, Claire gets to explore sensational opportunities for healing – spiritual empaths in Bali, reiki in Hong Kong, yoga in San Francisco.
Claire is grappling with the notion of getting older and not having children, but she knows that there’s no need to define where it comes from. She tells me that her main focus is ending the negative self-talk, and I nod as I feel that this message was meant directly for me.
“Are you prepared to go through life alone?” I ask her.
My chest slowly rises and falls with one long, lingering breath – the kind where I think the whole world can hear my thoughts – before Claire offers a cogent response.
“No. In the next five years, I’ll look to adopt.”
She doesn’t chuckle out of nervousness when responding or allow her eyes to drift to the corner of the room. Instead, she looks at me with an organic expression of fortitude that I’ve only occasionally seen in the rare beings across this planet who seem to be breathing in a different air – a dead giveaway of their connection to the Source. Claire reminds me of something that I seem to forget daily, while inspiring me to continue to row away from the safety of my old beliefs. This life is not a curse. Earth is a birthing place, and we are here to come to terms with a mystery so bizarre, so unfathomable, that the only way to merge with this monumental truth is to let go of the constructs we think are completely impermeable. The greater the fear in letting go of a precept, the more certain we can be of its fallacy.
On the idea of being whole, she tells me, “Is it simple enough to say that I needed to find my own way there?”