Have you had a memorable travelling experience lately? Mine was very special because it came with a personal breakthrough. I was on a train to a research conference in Princeton. When I boarded the train in DC, there were only a handful of passengers in the car so I had two seats to myself. Perfect! The three-hour trip was my last opportunity to prepare my presentation notes about immigrants in the U.S. military.
In a get-it-done mode, I worked fast and efficient crafting my speech. An hour into the trip, our train made a stop in Baltimore. I got up to stretch. Through the window I saw a guy in military uniform walking on the platform. “He might be an immigrant or child of immigrants serving in the military, the folks I plan to talk about,” I thought. I returned to my chair and went back to reviewing my research notes.
“Is this seat taken?” I heard next.
I looked up and saw the soldier from the platform. His name tag read Michael Dulan.
“Doesn’t sound too foreign to my foreign ear,” a thought crossed my mind. I took my purse off the seat next to me and said, “Not taken. I was saving it for you.” We both smiled.
One phrase led to another, and soon Mike and I chatted like two friends who ran into each other after not being in touch for ages. Our conversation flowed easily with jokes and stories of faux pas made during faraway trips. So when a train wheel broke down and we had to wait for two hours for its replacement, Mike and I welcomed this extra time together. We flirted, we laughed, we shared trail mix and fruits. It felt that we were in a time cocoon oblivious to the rest of the world.
At some point, Mike asked me, “How can we be so comfortable with each other so fast?”
I thought for a moment and said, “I think it’s a traveling effect. We’re in a different state of mind where thoughts are uninhibited and everything seems possible.”
“An uninhibited, uncensored, unafraid state of mind. I can’t recall the last time I experienced it,” Mike said as if thinking about something much more personal that we’ve shared so far. He looked down, then he massaged his temples. I sensed the shift in his mood. Something bothered him. I remained quiet giving him space to think and share if he chose to do so.
He finally said, “I think I have PTSD”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder.”
I took his hand into mine. Then he talked more, and I listened.
After some time he stopped and asked me sharply, “Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe to give you space to say what you had to say and to give you the chance to hear what you had to tell yourself.”
He considered my reply.
“I hate you for making me say what I haven’t told a single soul.”
“It’s ok. I can live with this.” I smiled at him.
Mike smiled in return but his eyes streamed sadness.
“I’m not a wimp, you know. I can handle everything.”
“I know. I have no doubt that you are a tough guy.” I smiled again and squeezed his hand. “But even Army-Strong guys sometimes need a break.”
“Yes, we do,” he said after a pause. “And you probably think that you should run away from this crazy guy next to you. Coo-coo crazy.”
I could practically hear him asking me to say “Oh, no, I don’t think you are crazy. What you feel is normal, etc.” I could practically see myself rushing in to give him advice on how to fix this or what to do next. But I was not willing to sugarcoat his negative self-talk or to let the Savior Complex be my guide again.
I would have won the battle but lost the war for both of us. Instead, I looked into his eyes and I asked him softly, “Is it what you keep telling yourself? Is it what your self-talk all about?”
He was quiet for a few moments. Then he replied, “You just showed me the mirror I had to see but avoided at all cost. I still hate you. And I thank you.”
“And I thank you for allowing me to just listen.”
Mike faced his fears. I broke the habit of rushing to save others because I think I figured it all out. Perhaps, what l have to offer instead is to be their mirrors, and trust that others can solve their issues on their own.
What are your habits that you may want to let go?