I see her yet. Christ, almost nineteen years, and she’s still with me.
Fall of 1996: I was 24 and newly ensconced at Berklee College of Music in Boston, after five years studying jazz guitar at the University of Maine at Augusta and commuting from home. At 24, I was a grizzled elder statesman, surrounded by 17 and 18-year old prodigies from around the world. I was out of the nest, on my own and stumbling finding my new footing.
One evening I was eating dinner alone in the cafeteria. I looked up and there was, at the next table, a young girl also eating dinner alone. She was probably 17, Asian, pretty. I stared at her covertly for a while. Something about the swirl of kids in the cafeteria, in groups and duos, happy and talking about music, made her solitude seem vaster, like she had an invisible shield around her. I found myself feeling sorry for her.
She was looking down at a piece of sheet music when I saw the tears glistening. I saw the tears, then caught a gentle shaking of her shoulders, and my heart just ripped out for her. Strange girl in a strange land. Doesn’t understand the language, no friends to help guide her through this confusing mess of foreign personalities, bad food, different customs. She was lost, alone, hurting.
I didn’t go over to talk to her.
For years I kicked myself for not going over and trying to help. Now, not so much. What could I have really done? She may well have told me to pound sand and leave her alone, for all I know. Now I realize that re-painting the scene does no good. I can’t know how things might have turned out, so no sense speculating on it.
But I do know that seeing her tears re-sparked my sense of empathy and compassion, and this has carried me to today. My heart still goes out to her, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But I can redirect my heart to those who hurt and suffer around me today.
Today I can use my voice to advocate for those who don’t have a voice.
Today I can tell a story and hope that it helps.
Today I can write what I know, knowing that others have gone through and are going through the same and create a sense of unity and comfort with my words.
Today I can listen to someone who is in pain; listen and sit with their pain and let that be enough.
Today I can open a door for someone. Today I can buy a cup for the guy in line behind me at the coffee shop. Today I can read a book to a kid or an elderly shut-in. Today I can plant a flower (well, not today: still can’t see my lawn under all the snow) or volunteer at a food bank or share an article about empathy and compassion.
Today I can do something to be there for somebody somewhere. And that’s the real lesson of that scene in a college cafeteria nearly two decades ago: I can’t help everybody, but I can help somebody.
That’s a hell of a gift and a responsibility, and I thank that girl daily for it.
Author: Brian Westbye
Editor: Caroline Beaton