The Compassion, Empathy, and Friendship of Perfect Strangers

There is a reason certain people are brought together.

Miriam Diaz-Gilbert
Jul 25 · 7 min read
Photo by Brandon Day on Unsplash

While walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge and looking for the entrance, a woman on the sidewalk asked me for directions to the bridge. I invited her to walk with me. Together we found the walkway and the promenade.

It was a beautiful sunny but hot and humid Thursday morning. The bridge was swarming with locals and tourists alike speaking in languages other than English.

I was neither a local nor a tourist. I live in the next state over and and was staying with my aunt in her apartment with an amazing view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

My view of the Brooklyn Bridge at night. Photo by Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

The woman asked me to take a picture of her on the bridge with her Samsung Galaxy Tab. We took a couple of selfies on my iPhone.

I asked her where she is from. She said she is from Seoul, Korea.

I introduced myself and she introduced herself. We learned each other’s name.

Yun opened her backpack. She pulled out a long, narrow item in a beige, red, black, and white tartan fabric cover. It was a folded paper fan.

She opened the fan to elegant Korean characters in calligraphy. “I make,”she said. “It’s beautiful. What does it mean?” I asked.

She answered in Korean then struggled in English, and simply said,“I love God.”

“I love God, too,” I said as I smiled. “Really?” she said with a bigger smile. At that moment we were kindred spirits.

Yun asked me for a pen. I did not have one. She squatted down and searched her backpack.

She found a pen. She wrote her first name and her email address on one end of the open fan gently placed on the crowded walkway we were standing on.

As she stood up, she carefully folded the fan and handed it to me with the fabric cover. Looking up at me, she announced with a smile, “For you.”

“For me?” I said with surprised delight as I towered over her. “Thank you so much. Did you make it?” I asked. “Yes.” She gestured she also made the cover.

I was so honored to receive such a beautiful handmade gift.

I had planned to walk only to the end of the Brooklyn Bridge and back, a distance of a little over 2 miles.

Instead, with the fan tucked away in its cover, I carried it with me for about the next six miles as my new friend from Seoul and I walked together from the Brooklyn Bridge, to South St. Seaport, and to Canal St.

I became her personal tour guide. It was my pleasure. She was grateful.

We learned and shared quite a bit about each other. While we differ in height, we share commonalities. We’re in the same age group.

She taught Korean at various universities. I’m an adjunct professor of theology/religion studies but in a prior university teaching life, I taught ESL (English as second language). Many of my students were Korean.

We both have two adult children. My son and daughter are married but her sons are still single. I am a grandmother. Maybe one day she’ll be a grandmother, too.

We walked. We talked. As we left South St. Seaport and walked on Fulton St. to Church St. toward Canal St. and Chinatown, I asked if she was enjoying NYC. With a grin from ear to ear, she said, “Yes. Very much.”

As we stood on a street corner waiting for the light to change, she told me it was her dream to come to America and to NYC after she was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago.

She pointed to her left breast. She is cancer-free and wants to do fun things and to enjoy life.

I shared that my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer over a year and a half ago. She understood what I said and immediately responded with concern and compassion.

She gently placed her left hand on my right forearm. She asked if he was OK.

I told her my husband has endured a lot of chemo, radiation, and surgeries, and reassured her that he is doing well and still working. She expressed relief and said she would pray for him. She would pray for us.

I could not believe that two perfect strangers — she, a cancer survivor, and me, a cancer caregiver — and worlds apart had been put in each other’s way.

Yun was on the Brooklyn Bridge to sightsee and to enjoy NYC, and to live her dream. She took a lot of pictures on the bridge, at South St. Seaport, of the World Trade Center and 911 Memorial as we walked by, and in Chinatown.

On this morning, I was starting my rest and relaxation fun on the bridge. I had arrived in Brooklyn the night before for a few days of respite and to decompress from the overwhelming and emotionally draining and demanding life as a cancer caregiver.

We were perfect strangers. Two people brought together. I have reflected on our encounter. This is my takeaway.

Compassion, empathy, and friendship are sometimes best found among perfect strangers.

Yun was lost on her way to the bridge. In her limited English, she reached out to me. We all know what it feels like to be lost.

The moment she asked for directions and the second I invited her to join me, the seeds of friendship were planted.

That we practiced compassion and empathy during our short journey, and formed our friendship on the bridge, is symbolic. Bridges represent progress, stability, ways to overcome obstacles, and connections. We connected.

Compassion, empathy, and friendship build bridges not walls.

The world can be a rough and unwelcoming place. We need to create more connections and to build more friendships. That’s what Yun and I did.

We all need to be compassionate and empathetic to our fellow strangers, for each one of us is a stranger, too, hoping to be treated with compassion and empathy.

We need to chant — “You are welcome here!”and not the indifference and heartlessness that comes with “Go back to where you came from!”

We all need to build more bridges and not walls.

Compassion, empathy, and friendship are universal languages.

The compassion and empathy that Yun and I communicated to each other were expressed through gestures of kindness, gratitude, and a willingness to stop, listen, and walk together on a shared journey. This is friendship.

Yun has limited English speaking skills. I do not speak Korean.

We communicated with few words but spoke volumes. We shared the universal language of compassion, empathy, and friendship.

Compassion, empathy, and friendship among perfect strangers is comforting.

We all seek comfort. In the world of caregiving, caregivers are often forgotten and made to feel invisible. I belong to a well spouse support group.

We care for our spouses experiencing a variety of challenging medical issues and illnesses including, but not limited to, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, dementia, disabling neurological diseases, strokes, and cancer.

But it is here, in our support group with each other, that perfect strangers come together to give and receive compassion, empathy, and friendship.

I feel whole and comfort in the company of these perfect strangers and in our shared stories of frustration, loneliness, sadness, hope, and trying to keep it together while falling apart.

Helping Yun find the bridge and sharing our experiences as we walked and talked helped me to set aside my caregiver exhaustion and to find comfort with a person sensitive to, and familiar with the world of cancer.

We found comfort in each other.

Find Your Perfect Stranger

Incivility, rudeness, bad manners, and lack of compassion and empathy thrive in our chaotic world. Don’t let incivility be the norm. Be compassionate. Be empathetic. Be friendly.

Amidst this world of incivility, form a friendship with a perfect stranger. Find the perfect stranger in your way. Be a perfect stranger, if only for a moment or a day.

Together exchange shared experiences, practice compassion and empathy, and build a new friendship. You will find civility, politeness, kindness, courtesy, and gratitude.

I took a photo of Yun’s fan.

I am grateful for Yun and the beautiful fan she gifted me. It means so much to me. I treasure it.

I shared the fan with a friend fluent in English and Korean. The complete English translation of the elegant calligraphic Korean characters reads — “I am a worshiper who worships God.”

Our journey together ended somewhere on Canal St. as spontaneously as it began on our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Both were in the moment. We just went with the flow.

Yun had to return to her hotel and tour group. She was excited to be heading on a bus to Niagara Falls at the crack of dawn the next day.

People We Need in Our Life

We parted ways with a hug. We will stay in touch by email.

During our six mile walk, we were happy to be in each other’s company, in each other’s way.

It was a joyful encounter on one of the hottest days of the summer. The temps were in the 90s. We were in the middle of a heat wave.

I walked back to the bridge under the bright blue sky and afternoon scorching sun. I arrived at my aunt’s apartment feeling blessed and whole, and filled with gratitude.

My first day of respite was off to a great start, made possible by a perfect stranger asking for directions to the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is a reason God, or maybe simply coincidence, brings certain people, perfect strangers together. I think this is because these are the people we need in our life.

Thank you for reading. I’m Miriam Diaz-Gilbert (aka Miriam Gilbert). I invite you to follow me on Twitter and to visit my website. Thank you for sharing this story.

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.

Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

Written by

Ultrarunner|Author|Cancer Caregiver http://www.miriamdiazgilbert.com/ www.facebook.com/ultramiriam/

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