If you’ve ever read the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey, you are most likely familiar with the Subway Story. This story provided me a foundation of understanding others at a young age and has enabled me to find compassion for others even on days I’m feeling like the whole world is falling down around me. In the story a father is riding the subway with his young children. The children are being very disruptive and a fellow passenger finally loses his patience and proceeded to address him. The father quietly says, “I’m so sorry, they just lost their mom, and I’m not really sure how to get them under control”.
While this isn’t exactly the way the story is told, this is how I had remembered it, and how I have continued to tell it over the past 25 years. It is a story about compassion. In the book, it talks about that moment serving as a Paradigm Shift— One moment that can change your entire perspective of a situation or a person. This is something that happens to many of us throughout our life, including myself. Every person I interact with, I try to imagine the struggles they may have going on in their own life.
For a long time, I couldn’t remember where I had heard of this story. It wasn’t until I was teaching a course at my University to first year students entitled “Personal Effectiveness” and I realized this story was in Stephen Covey’s book. I have carried this story around with me for over 25 years since reading it in my “Business Communications” class in college. Since I can remember, I have always had this story in the back of my mind.
My Paradigm Shift was propelled by this story 25 years ago. It struck me as I was a young college student, five hours from home in Maryland and missing my Dad who was back in my hometown of Seaford, New York. I was also missing my Mom, who had passed away only a few years earlier after a long battle with alcoholism. Going away to college was the first time I existed somewhere that no one knew “my story”. No one could have known the trauma that I had experienced only a few years prior to my first year of college. I had spent much of my childhood feeling as though I didn’t fit in. The struggles within my own family were rarely discussed. I would often look at others as though they were normal and I wasn’t. I would compare myself to my friends, wishing I had what they did yet not even having a clue as to what that was. I never really gave much thought to what I actually did have; a father who loved his children and worked tirelessly to ensure we were taken care of. When I read that story about the dad on the subway with his children, I saw myself there, on the subway. I imagined what my dad might have said or done in that situation. I felt that pain, I saw those children and I cried for them and for me.
The “Subway” story resonated and showed me that other people go through traumatic events that are life changing. It kind of made me feel less alone. I am sure that many of us can relate to this father. Sometimes, life just gets to be so much, so hard, so overwhelming. As I reflect back on the subway story, I felt the pain of that father—the same feeling of “where do I go now? How will it all make sense?” I can picture that father looking out the window, completely numb, unable to make sense of the deck of cards he had just been dealt. Suddenly forced to be a single father to young children after losing his spouse.
It also made me think of my own father. When my mom passed away, he was about to turn 50 I believe. He was away on a business trip in Paris, France and his 15-year-old daughter (myself) was home with his mother in law, while his oldest daughter was away at college. Over the years, I have often thought of my dad, imagining what it was like to receive that call that his wife had passed away, and he had to come home. I don’t remember him speaking about my mom after she passed away. I just remember we carried on.
I also think about all the years my dad battled stage 4 liver cancer. While our country was on high alert post 9/11, I was in my late 20’s, newly married starting my life with my husband. I had made a big decision to go back to graduate school to earn my Master’s Degree in Counseling. My husband and I were living just outside of New Haven, Connecticut and my father was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. So, when I was able, I would take the train into the city to be with him. I would often find myself sitting on the train, heading into the city after receiving the news that my dad was being admitted once again with a fever. I would often feel that numbness that was all too familiar. I even remember one day having a realization that when my father passed away, I would be left parentless. I’m sure that if someone saw me sitting on a train that day, they would have no idea the burdens I had been carrying with me.
As you go about your day, you may never know what that person in line at the grocery store might have just gone through. It is during these day to day interactions that I try to let my compassion follow me. I often feel that this is what is often missing in our society, compassion for others. It is very easy to get caught up in our day to day lives, struggles and challenges. Everyone is so busy. But if we take the time to just consider others and imagine they are going through a tough time, rather than thinking “what do they have to be stressed about”, we might find that kindness becomes contagious. Sometimes, we might see someone that appears to have it all together; a great job, a beautiful family, an incredible community. But the burdens that may weigh on their heart might be something we could not ever possibly understand or imagine. A wise woman once said to me, “try not to compare your insides to others outsides”. Meaning in this day and age, everything is out there on Social Media. Generally, all the “good things”. But our lives are filled with EVERYTHING! The good, the bad and everything in between. As hard as it might be, I try to be mindful of all of this. So, the next time you are sitting on a train, look over at the person across from you and if given the opportunity, be kind.
Thanks for reading…