When I looked up, tears were streaming down the driver’s face. Let’s just call him Rahim. Heading to the airport, I knew I wasn’t going to be in the car for long. I just wanted to get there and fly home.

Then we made eye contact.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve just been crying. I’m so sorry.”

I really didn’t know how to react.

“That’s alright, sir,” I replied. “There’s nothing wrong with being upset.”

Man, that sounded dumb. I just hoped that would end what was certain to be a painful conversation.

“Do you know what it’s like not to be able to provide for your family?” Rahim asked. He proceeded to tell me how he’d moved to be a kidney donor for his brother only to find that he wasn’t a match. To add insult to injury, he lost his job shortly thereafter. Rahim couldn’t find other work, so he started driving for one of the app-based transportation companies. Unfortunately, he lives about 50 miles outside of D.C. Driving into the city seriously cuts into his daily earnings.

We talked about other options, moving to a cheaper city, and trying to find opportunities closer to home. The truth was that he couldn’t move even if he wanted. He was trapped by circumstance.

“I just had to file for bankruptcy,” he said. “That’s why I was crying. I can’t even put food on the table for my family.” Rahim apologized profusely for sharing his troubles.

“It’s not a trouble to listen,” I said. “That’s the least we can do for each other.”

We arrived at the airport. I wanted to say something encouraging, but the words didn’t come. I gave him the money I had in my wallet, and I simply said, “Hold on, sir. Just hold on.” He thanked me as tears welled up in his eyes. He got back in the car and drove off.

Hold on? Really? The best I had to offer a man who spilled his guts to me is a little encouragement and a few extra bucks?

As I walked into the terminal, I kept thinking about Rahim. Maybe I’m just an easy mark, but I’d like to think I could recognize a genuinely broken soul reaching out to anyone–even a stranger like me.

He never asked me for anything. He wasn’t hoping for charity. He just wanted a chance. Maybe he only needed a moment where he didn’t feel like the whole world was caving in on him.

At the least, he needed to know somebody cared enough to see him.

Many of us have been there. I sure have. I’ve experienced pain so bad that I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. So many of us have scars as reminders of those times in our lives.

You’d think that would make us give a damn.

But we want convenient social interactions. We often try keep conversations sterile and surface-level. I sure did. I wanted to solve Rahim’s problems on the way to the airport. I quickly realized it was going to hang with me, I’d have to think about it, and I wouldn’t find easy answers. That was uncomfortable.

Empathy requires us to shoulder someone else’s pain. That’s why it’s messy. We don’t have to solve their problems or utter an inspiring pep talk. We have to see them where they are and meet them there.

I’ll probably never see Rahim again. There will be plenty of people who cross my path who just need somebody to care. The question is whether I’ll simply arrive at my destination or open my eyes along the way.

Featured Publications