If you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a little bit of wanderlust… and if you’ve met me, you know I’m as fiercely friendly as I am curious I love to get to know people and their stories better. Always quick with a warm greeting and some conversation with whoever may have the luck (or misfortune) of sitting near me on a plane or a train.
Recently I found myself on the train, often a great respite to get work done and appreciate the New England coastline in any season. This time, I found myself passing the time with a man about the same age as me with a very different life and history.
The conversation was natural and friendly, buzzing by pleasantly like the marshes, coastlines, and seasonal lobster shacks of Long Island sound. We wandered through the wefts and warps of our broadcloth histories, and started to move into the more immediate present… our day-to-day, and he asked what my weekend had been like… I smiled, and related the first banality that came to mind… a birthday party where I found myself talking with a friend who related they were having a challenging time with depression, and I had asked my friend if they explored medication.
The word ’medications’ hung in the air for a moment, and before my lips could finish letting the word out, the entire tone of our conversation changed. I found myself yanked out of our previously light and easy cadence, and instead saw a rather forceful response.
“I think that anyone who uses medications to get over their depression isn’t really trying, they just want an easy way out. Medication should be the absolute last thing anyone ever tries to use to cure their depression.” My train companion spoke with surprising force and conviction, rather unexpectedly.
His energy was tense as if he was waiting to defend against some sort of invisible foe. I took a few moments uncertain of what to do or say… I took a breath to think about what to say next…
“That’s… an interesting opinion, why do you think that?” is what I mustered, hesitant to pass judgment on the stories of strangers.
“I have so many friends who were depressed, and they just get a prescription because it’s easy. They don’t really want to do the work. I mean, no judgment if that’s what they have to do but people on medications for depression don’t really want to get well.” The tension remained, and again I found myself thinking of a better response to understand where this came from.
“That is anecdotal, though it sounds like you have some pretty strong feelings on antidepressants.” is what I slowly found myself saying.
“Oh I’ll be the first to admit, I am biased… After my military service in Chechnya was done, I was put on a whole cocktail of antidepressants and they really fucked me up. I was just out of it the whole time, and I finally took myself off of them against my doctor’s orders, and from there I slowly began to recover and make myself better.” My conversation companion’s breath was audible and tense, though his shoulders let go a little bit…
“I’m so sorry, that sounds awful,” I said on the exhale. “Do you recall what you were on?”
“No, it was a long time ago. I was only 14,” he responded
This was rather startling, and the stark differences of our childhood became apparent… though he started to become a little more relaxed, the locomotion of our conversation was still a little jerky as I began to get more history together.
“That sounds incredibly hard, I can’t imagine what that was like to have so little choice or autonomy in the matter. I’m so sorry, I really am, it must be horrible to have been forced into a situation like that.”
At that point, I moved my laptop aside, so I could lean in a little closer, taking a slow breath and meeting his eyes, I can see that as close as he is to me, he’s just as anchored to another time and another place very far from our train cabin. I started to release my breath, and make and hold eye contact.
After a few beats, his shoulders start to loosens, and his breath starts to sound more like my own, an easier in and out… about as forced as the lapping water on the shoreline outside the train. His eyes close, and he sinks with an audible exhale before starting to sit back up… no longer torn between this present moment and that distant yet meaningful past.
“I guess everyone is just doing what they think they have to do, whatever.”
The conversation continues a little longer, until we arrive at Penn Station, a little more natural and free-flowing, present and engaged. I prepare to disembark and as I start to stand up, my conversational companion thanked me for listening, apologizing for being so judgmental about other people “I just couldn’t help but think of my own experience, never about anyone else’s.”
Maybe he walked away a little less burdened from the conversation, a little less preoccupied with the choices of others. It’s likely we’ll never cross paths again. I know that my own understanding that the world is vast, and I will never run out of stories that surprise me, impress me, increase my capacity for empathy… keeping me humble in judging others, as you never know where they came from, or what they carry with them.
I think that’s why we all crave companionship so much, and why I chose this line of work. We all want a place to receive, listen, and behold without judgment. When I spend time with people, they come home a little lighter. I can see them a little freer of burdens they didn’t know they needed to let go.