A stranger in line

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David J. Ratliff, 436th Comptroller Squadron commander

I had an experience some months ago that I will regret for the rest of my life. I’d like to share it and what I learned from it.

My wife asked me late at night to get some milk from the store, so we’d be prepared for a special breakfast with our kids the next morning. While I was at the store, I noticed a technical sergeant, whom I’d never met before, in uniform doing some shopping. He had a little food in his basket, along with things you might buy if you had a sick kid at home: electrolyte drinks, crackers and children’s pain relievers.

As I watched the young man get ready to check out, I noticed he looked pretty tired. It occurred to me that any day with you purchasing food and medicine for a sick kid at 11 p.m. – still in uniform – is probably not your favorite set of circumstances.

I have four kids at home. I know what it’s like when one or more of them is sick and how hard it can be to take care of a job and a spouse and kids and food and, and, and...

And with that recognition, I felt a surge of empathy and a desire to help him somehow.

It occurred to me that it might be nice if I were to purchase his groceries for him. He didn’t have a lot of stuff in the cart, and it was coming up on the holidays. I was sure I could afford it. A kind deed might go a long way for a tired dad with a sick kid at home.

As I approached him, though, I started to doubt myself. I stopped myself with questions such as, What if he thinks I’m weird for offering? Or what if he gets offended that I don’t think he can manage without help? What if I offer, and he says no? Would I accept money from a man I’d never met before in the grocery store late at night?

I had the milk in my hand, and I was right behind him in line – but I wrestled with myself about whether or not to talk to him, to ask about his day, to just reach out with my credit card or to offer to pay for his groceries.

In the end, I said nothing at all.

He purchased his items and left, unaware of the emptiness that had now replaced the goodwill and helpful intentions I had harbored in my heart. In this instance, I failed to take care of my Airmen. I don’t know what good could have come of that kindness, but I feel confident that the only bad that could have come from offering might have been a little awkwardness with someone I may never see again.

But I didn’t do it.

And I learned that I should have.

Recently, I heard a program on NPR that identified the paradoxical nature of our resistance to talking to strangers. One experiment conducted by the University of Chicago demonstrated that people assigned to talk to strangers during their train commute reported they were happier on those days than on the days they were assigned to commute in silence – even for self-reported introverts.

Additionally, the study participants observed that the people they talked to were almost always willing to carry on a conversation after contact was initiated. So, the paradox is this: The stranger standing next to us is probably willing to talk with us, and we will most likely be happier if we talk to them.

But all too often, we don’t.

As we work to build a more resilient Air Force, let the people around us know they matter and strengthen our connections with the Airmen and communities that surround us, I implore you to ignore the voices of fear and apprehension that might prevent you from reaching out to the person next to you.

Say hello to that stranger. Greet that Airman. Introduce yourself to the person you’ve never seen before at work or in the grocery store.

You never know what a difference you might make in their life. But I truly believe that even if you don’t make a difference in their life, you will in yours. Aim high, Airman. Dover Pride.