Even the small things

A few days ago I received a phone call from my best friend back home. She told me that one of her dearest friends had taken his own life.  My heart clenched and the tears began falling from my eyes. I knew what he meant to her, what good friends they were… it made my heart ache to imagine her having to adjust to life without him. We just cried together over the phone.

She and I have been friends for a good long time, our entire lives in fact. And there’s no exaggeration here, we shared a crib when we were babies. We learned every lesson in friendship through one another. Despite this life long friendship, I had never met the man who ended his life. My only experience of him was through the photos and stories that she shared with me. So I know what a kind, caring, and generous person he was. My tears are a degree of separation, because I’m not crying for myself, but for my friend who is mourning someone very dear to her.

It’s awful to think of how many people are feeling so desperately lonely and hopeless right now. And how can we help them? Collectively what can we do to help alleviate some of this sadness? Why are we creatures who can be brought so far into despair that we might take our own lives just to be relieved from the pain of living?

And I’m no exception to this. I’m sure none of us are. Most of us, at some point I’m sure, have felt so down that it seemed exhausting to keep going.

Late last night my boyfriend and I were driving home from slack lining. We were stopped at a red light and a homeless man was walking up between the cars asking for change. Homelessness is a very apparent problem in downtown Toronto. It’s everywhere here. I pass so many people asking for change every day on my way to work, on my way to the grocery store, on my way to the dog park. Sometimes I give and sometimes I don’t. My boyfriend asked me to give this man change and I said no.

Why did I say no this particular time? I have no idea. Why do I say yes other times? I also have no idea.

Our light hearted night quickly plummeted into a heated debate about our individual responsibility to help others. Did I say no because I’m becoming increasingly desensitized to homelessness because of living here? Did I just not feel like it?  By the time I got back to my apartment I felt so sick and awful. Like I was the worst of humanity because, on this occasion, I said no.

I sat in silence on my couch for the better part of half an hour wrestling with my conscience when I decided that it wasn’t too late to make the other decision. I got back in the car and drove back to where I had seen the man asking for change. Though it wasn’t going to make me feel better, and though really it wasn’t going to solve anything,  I so badly wanted to change this one decision I had made. But the man wasn’t there. In the time it had taken me to drive home, and then drive back, the man was gone. And my opportunity to offer some little bit of help to him had passed me by forever.

I don’t know why this one occasion became so significant when I’m faced with similar ones every single day. But it was. Maybe because I’m hyper sensitive in the wake of learning of my friend’s friend’s suicide. Or maybe because my boyfriend confronted me so much about it when it’s usually just my decision alone. It’s so easy to feel like my small actions are insignificant and won’t make a difference, because no matter what I give or what I donate, there is always another person in need who I’m not helping. It feels like a never ending cycle. It feels like damage control for a much larger problem. But that’s not the way to think. Because to the person I’m offering my very small helping hand, it makes a difference. And that’s enough. A good enough reason to give.

There’s no right or wrong. We’re all struggling so much within ourselves and it’s unfair to carry the weight of the world’s problems on just our shoulders. But because we understand what it is to struggle, it’s important to find more empathy and compassion for others. Maybe I can’t give every time, and there’s no way I can help everyone on the verge of suicide, but I can pass peace, empathy, and kindness. I have that within myself, I know.

Smile, make eye contact, offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on…

Even the small things make a difference.


18 thoughts on “Even the small things

  1. So sad for you and your friend. It’s nice that she can lean on you. I wish that people would think that suicide is almost always a selfish act, leaving pain for others to bear for a long long time, and that seeking help is courageous and selfless. It breaks my heart to think of trading tomorrow’s sunrise for today’s darkness.

    The homeless issue is a complex one.. where we are so many have drug issues that unless one actually buys them food we may just be enabling. Tough times.

  2. I used to consult in downtown Cleveland, often leaving very late at night. There were some regular homeless guys who would sleep over the steam vents for they were warm. Usually if I had change, I’d give them five or ten bucks. One night I gave one guy some money and he an another homeless guy had a horrific battle over it. Now I offer to buy a meal, and often it’s refused – I’m good they say.

  3. I just give when I can and I don’t when I cant and I never ask the person what they want it for, drugs or food it is not for us to judge. Everyday, we wake up with more than others, shelter, warmth, health and food we should thank our lucky stars and not forget to giveback. I will not see the end of poverty in my lifetime but that does not mean that it is impossible. With love and gratitude I hope the next generation does better. My older brother committed suicide when I was sixteen; you never forget but I have dealt with it by being a loving uncle to his son.

    1. That’s very true. My friend was saying something similar, saying wherever the money goes is not really our business since we will never know… that the act of compassion and offering what we can is enough of a step in the right direction. Your nephew is so lucky to have you for an uncle 🙂 🙂

  4. Why should the Beautiful People make a move to help others?

    Life is rigged in a way that it benefits the strong – the charismatic, the beautiful, the rich, the cunning and so forth. Nothing can change it. Suicide is the only way – a complete rejection of this horseshit. Sure, it will hurt others but you have to care for yourself once in a while.

    1. I can understand where you’re coming from. I’m not sure how true it is that nothing can change it, though. Hopefully our society can evolve through our efforts.

      1. Simply put, it’s not true that nothing can change it. The problem is that even a single society, much less a world full of them, will never agree on how to focus or change those efforts you mentioned. You can only do what you can do. Find others like you, and maybe that’s a start. Hope starts with you.

    1. But does that mean that Western Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Japan are the only places where people have any hope of not feeling ashamed 24/7? Every society on the planet has that extreme divide between classes, in some way, and in fact, even the USA and Canada are doing better than like 90% of the rest of the world’s countries by sheer numbers. We in the North and Western Hemisphere are comparatively close to reaching this Utopian equality, much closer than Mexico, China, Russia, especially India, even Brazil – all countries whose economies lie just below our own in terms of success and growth, but who still depend on ours… and yet they all have vastly more citizens living in poverty than we. Who is to be more ashamed?

      1. Just because every society on the planet has extremes doesn’t mean we should not feel ashamed that it does. Perhaps simply as human beings.
        But establishing a comparative scale of shame in the hope that one can say ‘well, our society is less bad than another’ is a simply irrelevant. Let’s be specific USA, like the UK, has unacceptable extremes of wealth and poverty. Indeed the tax structures penalise the poor. Before we start looking at the rest of the world, let’s at least try to address the problem at home. Because actually, it can be done.
        But to do it we have to accept that what we have currently is wrong. And that we have no moral high ground that we can claim

      2. There is much truth to that. I have always agreed that just because one may be on the top, that never means one should discontinue the pursuit of perfection, and correcting injustices and flaws. I used to say everything you feel here, but I’ve become jaded by being too long in the service industry….

  5. Ursula LeGuin, in the Dispossessed, tells a story. The protagonist, Shevek, as a young man, was present at an accident where someone suffered third degree burns over most of his body. He sat with the man, who was in agonizing pain, while they waited for medical transport.. They couldn’t touch him, comfort him, give him food or water. Nothing. All he could do was to be present. That image, that story, stick with with me decades after first reading it. Sometimes all we can do is be present.

    Re the homeless man — I usually don’t give, because I have read so much credible journalism about how much a panhandler makes in a day, often hundreds of dollars. Once in a while I am moved to.
    But I don’t ignore them — I will make eye contact, and give a little shake of my head. I ignored someone once and it haunted me so badly I can’t do it any more.

    1. I try to do the same. I find most of the time that I get a smile in return. I think it’s enough sometimes to acknowledge someone in hardship… ‘I see you, Sorry I can’t help you.’

  6. Worst place to be in inside of a “maybe.” Either decision — to do or to not do — is better. Remember, each of us is responsible for our conditions, in which we find ourselves. Otherwise, we could never change them. Wise advice I oncve received was this: People lower in survival potential will NEVER push you higher; they only pull you down.

  7. If I knew how to convince you to not feel any regret about your first decision, to not give anything, I would. My opinion has always been: for every time you feel tempted to give to a panhandler, you should instead give to some soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Explain to their staff at the time that the dollar(s) you’re donating is(are) the one(s) you would have handed some stranger on the street, but you wanted it to be used fairly, in a trustworthy manner, and not for booze or drugs. They will thank you profusely and probably provide you with some excellent advice on how to handle those downtown traffic light situations in the future. 😉

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