What to do if You See Someone Crying in Public
Adult life is so hard. Sometimes, it’s so hard that it prompts involuntary weeping. Ideally, said weeping occurs in the privacy of one’s own domicile. But live in New York City long enough, and you’re bound to encounter public weeping, which is unfortunate for you, the weeper, and everyone else who must bare witness to this sad state of affairs. Coming to the aide of people in their moments of need isn’t something New Yorkers are known for. In 2018, I almost helped a crying girl on the L Train, but as I stood to approach she vomited directly in her own lap. Since then, I’ve generally tried to mind my own business.
But as the days grow longer and the climate warmer, it’s likely the number of adults crying on park benches and subway platforms will only proliferate. You can either pretend to be unbothered and crank the volume on your podcast, or access your humanity and potentially share a life-affirming moment with a fellow homo sapien. If you choose life, here’s what I recommend:
Approach the crying person. Get close enough so it’s obvious they’re the one you’re addressing, but not so close that they’d be able to connect with your face if they decided to suddenly throw a haymaker punch or sweeping leg kick. Remember that public emotional instability is the ugly stepsister of physical violence.
Choice of words matters a lot. If you say “what’s wrong?” you presume this person is ready, willing, and able to communicate their tale of woe and misery. If they’re not, you’re being nosy, and everyone else on the subway now thinks you’re weird. If they are willing to share their tale of woe and misery, you’ve just volunteered yourself as therapist for an undefined period of time. Are you ready to feign concern for their career, dating life, or why their father never said ‘I love you’? Dangling that carrot and then pulling it away because you were really just headed to Trader Joe’s will only compound the crier’s misery. The best course of action is to avoid these variables by keeping the dialogue to a simple yes / no. Lean in and offer a polite but firm “you good?”
Ideally, the cryer replies with a muffled “I’m fine” between sobs. A “leave me alone” is even better, given the circumstances. Upon reception of such comment, you can relieve yourself of your duties as an empathetic human being. However, there’s also a chance the crier responds with something like “No, I’m not good,” or worse: “No, can you help me?” This response is a violation of the social contract. You obviously knew they weren’t “good.” “Good” people aren’t crying outside Bank of America at 2PM. The original query was simply an opportunity to take advantage of another person’s misery to prove to yourself that you’re a decent person. But it didn’t work, so now…
You must ask how you can help. Maybe it’s the provision of some pocket change, or the summoning of an Uber. Maybe you need to escort them home and help them confront their abusive spouse. Or maybe they only have a few weeks to live unless they receive a liver transplant. You chose to intervene, so now you’re obligated to see this thing through. The next day, accompany the crier to the doctor and make the offer to donate your liver. The doctor will explain that you cannot donate your whole liver, because you need it for blood filtering, digesting fats, storing nutrients, and other useful bodily functions. In fact, without your liver, you’ll die (as the crier is well aware). However, it’s possible to donate a piece of your liver, which can then be transplanted to the crier, and re-grow to full size inside their body. As it so happens, the liver is the only organ inside the human body that has the ability to do this. “That’s incredible,” you say, with a touch of unease.
You must submit to a blood test, imaging scan, and physical examination. As it turns out, you’re a suitable donor. The doctor calls you into his office. “Before you go through with this, I’m obligated to inform you of the risks associated with this operation.” He rattles off a list of side effects: infection, damage to the bile ducts, blood clots, breathing problems, digestive problems, adverse reactions to anesthesia, and death. Also, none of this is covered by your insurance.
The day of the liver transplant is here. Per the doctor’s orders, you haven’t eaten or drunk anything in 12 hours. In your head, you’re a complete wreck. You’ve never had surgery before. You’ve never even broken a bone in your body. Your hands are shaking, and the only thing keeping you from passing out is that it’d be a waste of the anesthesia. The surgery takes place in a large operating theater. You look up and see doctors from all over the country have flown in to spectate. It turns out liver transplants are a relatively uncommon procedure, with only a few thousand taking place in the United States each year. The double doors swing open and a nurse wheels in the crier. As the doctors prepare for surgery, the crier leans in and says, “thank you for saving my life.” They reach over and squeeze your shaking hand. And then, I shit you not, they start crying again. In front of hundreds of doctors. But you can’t even manage a “you good?” because now you’re crying too. In public.
You wake up in a hospital bed sometime later. You peel back your shirt and sure enough, there’s a 3-inch scar on your upper right abdomen where they pulled out part of your liver. The nurse informs you that the surgery was a success, but emotionally you feel nothing. The doctor comes in and provides you a laundry list of medications you’ll need to take to help your liver regenerate and prevent infection. He also prescribes you a strict diet that forbids alcohol and tobacco for the foreseeable future, given these substances are harmful to the recovery process.
It’s two months later and you’re on a date at a bar. You still can’t drink so you’re sipping a ginger ale. Your date is transfixed as you retell the story of of how you literally saved a stranger’s life. “You’re so brave,” they say. “I was just doing what any decent person would do,” you reply. Just then, you hear a familiar sound: the person at the table next to you has burst out crying. Your date turns expectantly to you, and you greet their gaze with a nod that says, “don’t worry, I’ll handle this.” You stride over as everyone in the bar turns to watch. You lean in close, and attempt your most sincere “what’s wrong?”
It’s not until after you utter these words do you realize you’ve forgotten Steps 1 & 2 of what you should do if you see someone crying in public. But no sooner does this thought occur than a sweeping leg kick connects with your upper right abdomen. You crash to the floor, writhing in pain. A doctor will soon tell you that you’ve ruptured your liver, and need a transplant ASAP. As tears begin to fill your eyes, your date stands over you, leans in, and offers a polite but firm “you good?”
Q&A on the article
Q: Why did you choose to share this blog post this week?
A: I felt like there was a lot of public crying in the wake of a certain bank collapse.
Q: Why not write something about that?
A: As it so happens, I did. But certain entanglements are keeping me from sharing publicly. Maybe next week!
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