Editor’s Note: The following is part of our daily holiday series celebrating “The Shared World.”

With my nose stinging of chlorine and my legs treading wildly, I tried to focus on the teary-eyed woman bobbing before me.

I had seen her at the pool before. Her face had always reminded me of my mom’s, even though they were of different races.

We had never spoken, but today, after barely more than a “hello, how are you?” the woman started to tell me about her husband and his health. Water lapping at our necks, she gestured to him in a wheelchair in the lobby. He was dying.

I did the best I could to listen empathetically. Paddling along next to her, I wondered, “Would it be weird to try to hug someone in the middle of the deep end?” I settled on assuring her of my prayers.

She was not the first stranger to tell me about problems she was having with her husband. In fact, she was the third woman at the pool to confide in me.

I was beginning to notice a trend, and I was baffled. Surely this is something that happens to religious in habits, not Millennials in swim caps?

With overwhelming frequency, middle-aged women I do not know approach me and strike up a conversation – or, more accurately, they launch into a monologue during which I try to respond with appropriate facial expressions and sounds of agreement. From an Indian woman at Dulles Airport who wanted to gossip, to a Bavarian woman at a cafe in Italy who waxed nostalgic, their preferred topic is matters of the heart.

While I try to be friendly and receptive, inside I feel little uneasy. As a young person with no relationship experience (or psychological training), it’s not like I’m particularly equipped to give advice on love and marriage.

Eventually I realized that these women aren’t looking for someone with answers, just someone to talk to. Coming from a generation that was taught to not talk to strangers and that seems to prefer the company of technology to people, it took a while for this to sink in.

I have finally started to see these encounters as a gift. Sometimes the gift is the other woman’s desire to be friendly and guiding, and I need to be the one to receive it (unsolicited marriage advice and all). Sometimes the gift is an empathetic ear, and I need to be the one to give it (even when it’s in the middle of my workout).

Either way, these encounters are dissolving the barriers we create between strangers and generations.

If someone and I spend hours exercising next to one another every week, why can’t we take time to learn about each other? If someone and I are both traveling, why can’t we share a laugh or sigh during the brief crossing of our paths?

I think these women are better at seeing themselves in me than I in them – after all, they were 20-something once. Perhaps this is why they initiate conversation: they seek to tap into our commonality, an innate sisterhood to which I had been blind.

As I dive into appreciating what I share with these women, it helps me to think of my mom. We live hundreds of miles apart, and if she were struggling, I would hope that a nice nearby stranger would listen to her in my absence just as I listen to the women before me.

“Love lightens all difficulties and sweetens all bitterness,” said Blessed Frances Schervier, paraphrasing St. Francis of Assisi. I pray that through these encounters with strangers I can grow in a love for others that helps them keep their heads above water.

Featured image by Robbie Sherman, flickr Creative Commons

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