Small Gestures Can Have a Big Impact on People

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

February 26th, 2009 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

Small gestures can have a big impact on people — both for better and for worse.  Take the examples from my second round of recent travel up north, to take care of my mother.

Trading places

I had to fly in the middle of the afternoon.  I generally make a point of traveling on the last flight out, late at night, on Saturday night if possible, because very few people fly then. Among other things, flying when nobody else does helps me avoid the very situation that I encountered when I had to go smack in the middle of the afternoon:

I was sitting in the back of the plane, in an aisle seat, with an empty seat between me and the window seat.  When there were just a handful of people left trickling onto the plane, a very large man came and sat in the middle seat — spilling well over into my seat.  I knew that if I sat next to him on the flight, my body would be twerked the entire way, and I would end up in horrible pain, not just on the plane ride, but for hours or days after.

So I spoke up: I said to the flight attendant that I have chronic pain and a hypersensitive body, and that I could not sit like that for the duration of the flight. I spoke loud enough for others around to hear, in the hopes that someone would volunteer to trade with me. Quietly, I said something to the man as well, along the lines of acknowledging that it was the fault of the impossibly tiny seats, and recognizing that he must be uncomfortable too. 

As it turned out, the wife of the man next to me was sitting in the middle seat, in the row behind us.  She said something to the effect of, “Well if you’re not going to sit there, I would like to sit next to my husband.”  A woman in an aisle seat one row behind and across from me then offered to give me her aisle seat and to sit in the middle seat in the row behind the man in question, thereby allowing his wife to sit next to him in the aisle seat I was giving up.

Wow.  I could not thank her enough.  I let her know that she had speared me terrible pain.  I also asked for her name and said a prayer for her in my heart.

Lightening My Load

Here’s another reason why I avoid travel in the afternoon: The shuttle to the rental car was packed, meaning that among other things, I had a hard time maneuvering my bags onto the shuttle.  I asked the driver for help, explaining that I had a disability, but he was a total asshole, snapping, “That’s not part of my job.”  A woman who had been on the plane ride with me, and who had witnessed the whole seat-switching scenario, offered to help — lifting both my bags onto the shuttle and snuggling them in next to the other bags.

When we reached the rental car destination, the same woman said to me, unprompted, “I’ll get your bags down, don’t worry.” She then proceeded to take them off the shuttle, as I exited.  Apparently, being that she had her family’s bags to take off the shuttle, she asked another woman to help with one of my bags.  In stark energetic contrast to the first woman, the second woman brought my bag with a hostile expression on her face and terribly aggressive energy, so that when she dumped the bag just shy of my foot, I felt as if she had rammed into me.

Refusing to Budge

I got in line behind two people, waiting for one of the two rental car agents.  When it was my turn for service, one of the agents darted into the back office, just as I approached the counter.  He reappeared a few minutes later, talking on a cell phone and grabbing something from the counter, then dashed back into the office.  I waited well over five more minutes, but he did not reappear.

I told the second clerk that I had been waiting about 10 minutes by then. “Just a minute,” he said, “he will be back to help you.”  I waited a couple more minutes.  “I have an emergency situation,” I said to the second clerk.  “My mom has just been admitted to the emergency room. I can’t wait anymore.”  “I’ll be right with you,” he said, continuing at the same pace with his customer, nonplussed.

I tried opening the low door standing between the customers and the clerks, so that I could walk into the back office, but it was locked. So I started yelling into the back office, saying that I had an emergency and needed service immediately.  No answer, but I did get a lot of looks from other customers. 

I turned back to the second clerk and told him it was absolutely unacceptable to keep me waiting so long, especially considering that I had an emergency situation. I was intentionally being very loud, to get him to take action, and it worked.  He finally excused himself from his customer and went into the back office.  As it turned out, nobody was there; the first clerk had skipped out.  “I’ll be right with you,” the second clerk said to me, returning to his customer.  At that point, I left him alone until he finished.

Holding My Hand

The next morning, I went down to the Starbucks in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying.  The barista, a good-looking guy with whom I had a few conversations during my previous stay, asked how I was doing.  I answered honestly, saying that my mother was back in hospital, and sharing some of my feelings about it. 

He listened compassionately, and he just had such good energy about him, that I asked if he believes in the power of prayer.  He said yes.  So I asked him to pray for my mom, telling him a few details about her — to help direct his prayer.

I had done the same thing with taxi drivers, waitresses, concierges, and other random nice people up and down the coast of California. But this interaction was different. Instead of promising to pay for my mom, this guy took both my hands in his, closed his eyes, and said a prayer right then and there.

I had been rattled and frightened, totally ungrounded and in a bad mood up to that point.  But I felt so comforted and nurtured by this gesture, that it set the tone for the rest of my day — leaving me feeling much lighter and happier, as well as thinking positively again.

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