Imagine it’s Black Friday. You’re on a mission to knock out a sizable chunk of your holiday shopping responsibilities. You’re moving quickly through stores, laser-focused, scoping the sale items in your field of vision so that your brain can process each durable good on a scale of likability and appropriateness for each of the family members, friends and colleagues who need gifts from you.
The big box store you’re in is vibrating. People are talking loud, moving with a purpose, and are mostly consumed with accomplishing their retail objectives. And then, you see her.
In the midst of everything that is Black Friday, a woman in her 30s is sitting on the corner of some product display, and she’s crying. Actually, her emotion is more raw and unrestrained than that; she is sobbing uncontrollably.
What would you do?
To be candid, my first thought would probably be that it’s none of my business…that this woman doesn’t know me, and that she does not want some stranger asking her why she’s losing it in the middle of the store.
Other thoughts might come to mind… like she’s probably just stressed during the holidays, or that she’s overreacting to some event – like someone snatching away the last “Hatchimals” toy that her daughter had written Santa about. And then, I might turn away; get back to my gift-collecting quest, and rationalize that the crying lady will be just fine in a few moments. I might be one of the dozens of people who walk past her, awkwardly looking around at everything but her. In my mind, I might even minimize her pain and decide that she doesn’t really need my support.
The truth is, I don’t really know what I would do in that situation. But I know what Stephanie Uhlenberg did on Black Friday, November 25th in those circumstances. Stephanie stopped. She asked the sobbing Angel Mott what was wrong, and learned that Angel had just received a phone call, in the middle of the Mills Fleet Farm Store in Des Moines, Iowa. And Angel learned that her mother has just died.
Angel’s mother had suffered debilitating strokes and was in hospice care when she passed. For Angel, the phone call that she received was devastating. She needed someone, even a stranger, to help her get through that moment. Stephanie didn’t walk by. She embraced Angel, provided empathy and kindness and shared Angel’s grief. Stephanie even stayed with Angel long enough to guide her through the checkout line.
Upon leaving the store, Angel drove to the hospice residence where her late mother had been receiving care. Later she realized that she needed to thank Stephanie, but she didn’t know the name of the compassionate stranger who had helped her through one of the most difficult moments of her life. So Angel used Facebook to broadcast a call to Stephanie, writing: “Some nice lady with black hair (I think) and purple highlights sat down with me and hugged me for about five minutes. She cried with me,” she wrote. “I would just like to thank her very much. Not one person stopped to see if I was OK. But her and her sister did and I appreciate that more than they’ll ever know! My mom was my best friend. I felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest.”
It was Stephanie’s sister, Sara Ross, who learned of Angel’s Facebook post and alerted Stephanie of Angel’s desire to find her. Just a couple of days later, Stephanie attended the funeral visitation for Angel’s mother. When Angel saw Stephanie at the funeral home, the two wrapped their arms around each other and shed a few more tears. Then they spoke about what happened on Black Friday.
Angel told her, “That hug meant the world to me. It made me feel like people actually still care.”
And therein lies the opportunity for all of us: caring when it isn’t convenient; reaching out to help someone when it might feel awkward; hugging a stranger when you don’t need it, but he or she is crumbling inside.
This Christmas season Stephanie’s actions serve as a reminder that we each have the ability to be humane, supportive and positively impact the lives of others. Make it a point to include greater empathy and “random acts of kindness” into your personal mission statement – and your daily lives.
Think about the scene with Angel, and determine how you plan to respond to individuals and events like that when they cross your path in 2017.
What will you do?