Listen, wait, listen again, and judge not:
The late Robin Williams once said everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always. Robin Williams was perhaps the perfect messenger for this thought. None of us knew the battle he was in, a fight for his own sanity that he waged every day.
My husband was a rescue helicopter pilot for many years, so he witnessed a lot of human struggle, a lot of personal tragedy. He told me this story recently.
One night he was called out to a vehicle accident on a nearby freeway. A man had lost control of his pickup truck, flipped the vehicle over, and crashed in the median. When my husband arrived with his medical team, the patient, a man in his thirties, was inside the ambulance. He had broken bones, and a few open wounds, not much seriously wrong with him, but he needed to go to an emergency room in any case.
While my husband watched, the paramedics worked on the man, starting IVs, putting a hard collar on his neck, preparing him to fly. As they did all this, the man kept asking about his truck. ‘Is it okay?’ He asked. ‘Did I total it? Can I drive it again?’ It was clear to my husband, at that point at least, that the truck’s condition was critically important to the man.
My husband walked into the median where the truck was on its top, ‘probably totaled,’ he said. Then he saw the boy.
‘In the median, several yards from the wrecked truck, I saw a small boy on his back, a white sheet covering him. The child was dead. He’d been thrown from the truck, and probably died instantly.’
My husband returned to the ambulance, where the man was focused on that truck. ‘He wouldn’t shut up about it,’ my husband said. ‘Is it okay? Can I still drive it?’ My husband told me that he had to step away, that he looked at the accident victim, saw the dead child, heard more of the man’s ridiculous questions until he couldn’t listen anymore.
‘I was so angry with him,’ my husband said. ‘I’d never been angry with a patient before. That was a new feeling, and very strange. I hated feeling that way, but I was really upset with him. Your little boy is dead, I thought. How in the world can you worry about a stupid truck?’
My husband said it was only later, long after he’d left the injured man at the hospital and flown home that understood. The man knew his little boy was dead. He knew about that tiny body in the median, his son resting under a sheet. He knew it was his driving, his truck that had killed the boy. On his back, in the rear of that ambulance, and badly injured himself, he had to think of something besides his dead son. He had to focus his mind on ‘that stupid truck’ or he couldn’t go on. The battle he was fighting would have overwhelmed him.
My husband wishes now, many years later, that he’d been kind that night, instead of judgmental, and angry. He wishes he’d understood what was really happening at that accident site, where a man had lost his truck, and his son, and almost his own life.
‘He’d received the best medical attention there was to give.’ My husband says. ‘He’d gotten the fastest response, the best intervention, and the best expertise we could bring to him. It would have been a gift beyond measure if he’d also received the tincture of human kindness from me, from all of us.’
Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Be kind, always.