You may have read this post about a pregnant woman sobbing at her boarding gate at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). She was traveling alone with her toddler, who was having a complete meltdown. Seven women who were seated nearby went into rescue mode, surrounding them in a show of support and grace to relieve their suffering.
No one hesitated. There was no communication. And no one coordinated. Despite the lack of planning, the women’s efforts were the cure for this situation – there was a toy for the toddler, a bottle of water for the mom, and an orange one woman peeled and offered them. The mom and child calmed down, collected themselves, and boarded the plane. The women-rescuers dispersed. They didn’t change the world for the better for everyone, but they did exactly that for the mother and child in crisis.
The simple beauty of this moment was moving. If you read the story, you may be wondering, as I was, how it all came together. I don’t know that it matters much. What stands out in this story is the women observing the situation were compelled to act, quickly found a way to be present and helpful, and then went on their way. They didn’t need to be thanked for their actions, which were borne of simple, beautiful whole body intelligence and empathy.
It’s easy to avoid people you see who are in crisis, and with good reason – you don’t know who they are, what their mental state is, or how they’ll react if you offer help.
Consider if it were you. You find yourself in crisis at the end of a terrible day. You’re in a public place, you’re alone, and are unable to do even the simplest task, like picking up your phone and dialing 9-1-1. Do you want people to pass by without noticing your suffering or do you hope someone will pay attention?
You may prefer to say you experience it as your physical, intellectual, and emotional self; or in response to actions, thoughts, and beliefs; or because you are an observing, thinking, and feeling creature. Regardless of how you frame it, each of these is a center of intelligence or brain, if you will, that you use to interact with the world around you.
The women at LAX who responded to the mother and toddler in crisis seamlessly acted in response to what they saw or heard, sensed, and understood. It may have gone something like this: when they heard crying, the women around the terminal tuned into their limbic system, the part of the brain that responds to threat, which triggered a rescue response. They used the problem-solving power of their cerebral cortex to assess the situation and quickly locate something that would distract the mother and child from their crisis. They instinctively put their bodies on the same plane as the mom and child to offer their physical presence to soothe them.
These small but significant actions turned around what could have become a very difficult plane ride for mom, her toddler, and the other passengers around them on the flight. When you think about it that way, the women who took action actually did change the world for the better for nearly everyone on that plane.
It may be easy for you to recognize the signs that someone is in crisis. Likewise, it may be easy, at times, to ignore the signs that someone is in need or quickly redirect away from empathy to something that distances you from the crisis. But if you pause and hold your attention on the person or people in crisis, you can tune into the signals your body, soul, and mind are processing. And it may reveal something kind you can do that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise. Two caveats apply in any crisis situation: practice safety for yourself and if there is an immediate threat to you or someone else, call 9-1-1.
You don’t have to put yourself in the middle of the situation. Your act of kindness may be something small, like staying within sight and ear-shot of a developing situation. Your mere presence and intentional observation can discourage an aggressor, empower someone who feels under attack, and give you the chance to summon help from police or other first responder, should it be necessary.
Another benefit of exercising whole-body intelligence to understand another human is you tap into your own empathy. But the power of empathy isn’t in what it does for you, it’s in your ability to experience the situation as if you were living it. You see, hear, and understand another human being. And everyone needs to be seen, heard, and understood – SHUs, so to speak.
If you find yourself thinking, “That’s nice and all, but who has the time for it?” A fair question, to be sure. But if you put yourself in the same situation, as you were invited to do a few paragraphs ago, would you want to be ignored and left to your own fate?
Next time you see someone in need, quietly pause and observe. You can allow yourself to powerfully understand the situation or you can allow yourself to walk away from it. When you practice whole-body intelligence to process your surroundings, you can find your sweet spot to respond.
You have the power to change the world for the better. All it takes is a moment to pause and observe. What you do next is up to you.