To The Stranger Who Taught Me About The Power Of Empathy


Dear Woman On The Street,

You sidled up to my friends and me on a temperate August day. A day on which the sky was as clear as crystal and the sun gently glinted overhead. A day on which pedestrians sauntered through the streets of my college town, unencumbered by the rush of the work week. A day I spent with friends sitting on the shaded porch of a yogurt shop, laughing, reminiscing, and celebrating the gift of life, the arrival of my 21st birthday.

You leaned casually against a railing near us with a wide, friendly smile spread across your face. “Look me in the eye,” you stated evenly. My friends and I were unsure what to make of you. Not knowing your motivation, your intent or the reasoning behind your abrupt approach, we disregarded you. Turned away. Averted our eyes. You were unknown to us, a stranger.

You continued to speak to us, to me, it seemed, your words sending a sharp jolt of humiliation through me, boring a hole deep into the fiber of my being.

“Your eye shadow…it’s mismatched! Oh wait, did you do your makeup like that on purpose?” you taunted aloud.

You had no way of knowing that that morning I scrutinized every perceived flaw in the mirror, questioning my appearance and wondering if others would judge me on looks and looks alone.

“Your teeth,” you said disdainfully. “I use whitening strips; you should try it too!”

I immediately pursed my lips in response, the vestiges of the polite smile I kept plastered on for you fading into nothingness. I wished more than anything that you would see that internally, deep in my heart, I was breaking, even as I attempted to smile at you. But you didn’t.

“Do you even eat?” you asked with derision.

My eyes immediately fell on my slender body, the body that had been subject to similarly heartbreaking commentary since the third grade. My black-and-white striped dress gently caressed the curves of my body and magnified my slight frame and perceived appearance of fragility. “I never should have worn this dress,” I mused silently, dejectedly, as anger bubbled inside of me and threatened to erupt. I never should have come here.

You were the voice of my insecurities personified, the nagging doubts in my appearance that constantly haunted me, our society’s harsh taunts that beauty defines womanhood and that kindness, empathy, and love are worthless.

I attempted to ignore you as you moved on to my friend and her hair, but inside, I was seething. Hearing you berate my friend’s appearance hurt far more than hearing you denigrate mine, but I felt frightened, powerless to stop you, unable to muster a response to the assertion that my friend needed to “feel the wind in her hair” to prevent dryness. You left as I was wondering how to end the monologue in which we were embroiled, but not before our eyes met.

I could see pain behind your deep green eyes, the scars of hurt and hopelessness. I could just make out the traces of weariness in your face, hidden behind a bright smile. In that moment, a realization struck me in the depths of my being.

We were strangers with lives connected in a single moment in time and pasts unknown to each other.

You could not see my triumphs and struggles, my challenges, my hopes, and my dreams, and I could not see yours. You had no way of knowing the insecurities I battled in my 21 years, the challenges I faced to embrace my appearance, or the difficulties I endured in the course of my life.

Although I could see the vestiges of a difficult past in your appearance, I did not know what brought you to cross my path, what compelled you to use the words you did, or why you chose to approach us in particular. The only explanation I could ascertain was that you felt troubled, lonely, and broken. I immediately felt sorry for my response to you as tremendous guilt in not reaching out to you washed over me.

I do not know where you are now, but I have felt the pain I saw in your eyes. I know what it is to feel defeated, to long for the company of others, and to angrily lash out at others in times of deep personal struggle. I have come to learn that those struggles are not permanent and that life has incredible beauty in store for everyone, even if it appears to be hidden.

I need you to know that your life is no exception. By searching for flickers of light in the darkest moments of your life and cultivating positivity to combat life’s challenges, you will thrive under any circumstance. You will blossom. You will bloom.

The words you spoke to me on the afternoon of my 21st birthday taught me a valuable lesson in empathy. I now fully understand the importance of looking beyond words and actions, of making an effort to understand others’ perspectives even when it becomes difficult to do so and of forgiving after being cut down.

I hope that wherever you are now, you are safe, comfortable, loved, and at peace with yourself and others. Thank you for reminding me that we are all a collection of stories unknown to those around us and that we must delve deeper than mere first impressions to truly begin to understand others. Thank you for teaching me not to judge until I can see a clearer picture of the underlying circumstances.

Most importantly, thank you for imparting the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my 21 years of life: No matter how difficult, always choose to respond with kindness, understanding, and empathy.


A Woman Forever Changed By Your Presence