At the beginning of the summer, I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to accompany my 13 year old daughter Sophie to Austria to cheer her on as she represented the USA in basketball at the United World Games. The tournament was exciting (her team came in 5th), the opportunity to meet young athletes from over 40 countries was inspiring, and the view from the athletic facility of farms, lakes and castles with a backdrop of the Alps was breathtaking.
But it wasn’t the vista that truly took my breath away.
After the conclusion of the games, our group of 40 athletes, coaches and parents travelled to Vienna, Venice and Salzburg to take in the major sites. And one day was dedicated to a trip to Mauthausen, a “category three” concentration camp where prisoners were sentenced to “death by work”…or worse. I knew that for me and Sophie, the only Jewish parent and athlete on the trip, this was going to be a meaningful and difficult experience.
Our group sat together to watch a film about the atrocities at the camp, where former prisoners recounted their horrific experiences. We walked through the museum, where artifacts were on display — a makeshift spoon, a single shoe, a desperate letter home. We toured the intact gas chamber, where each and every one of us felt torn between wanting to see and wanting not to see. We walked through the infamous “Block 20” where the camp’s “criminals” were forced to work from sunup to sundown in all weather, and were expected to lie down and form a human carpet to shield the SS officers’ boots from the ground.
And as horrendous as that was to seek it still wasn’t what took my breath away.
It was an hour into our tour when one of my daughter’s teammates came up to Sophie, and put her arm around her shoulders. Sophie looked up at her teammate, who asked this simple yet powerful question:
“How is this for you?”
With five words, Sophie’s teenage teammate managed to capture empathy, understanding, concern, caring, as well as the awareness that Sophie, as a Jew, might be experiencing the camp differently than her non-Jewish peers. Her question didn’t assume that Sophie would have a particular response to the camp, but it created the space and opportunity for Sophie to reflect on what her response was. The question was personal without being intrusive, nonjudgmental, open, and delivered with warmth and compassion.
Asked by a 14 year old girl. At a time and place where compassion was exactly what was needed.
That’s what took my breath away.
And you can take someone’s breath away too, with this compassionate coach-like question that gives your friend, colleague, or family-member an invitation to reflect on his or own personal experience in the midst of a change, crisis or opportunity. “How is this for you?” acknowledges and respects the uniqueness and individuality of someone’s perspective while demonstrating your interest in, concern for and curiosity about them. The question doesn’t ask for someone to seek consensus or find a middle ground or adapt to others. It simply asks someone to be who they are, feel how they feel, and share (or not) what it’s like.
I, for one, am so happy that my daughter has a teammate who was so caring, compassionate and curious about her. That, for me, is what makes a gold medal team.