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.