It costs nothing to be nice, and it might just save someone's life, reflects Dr Max
A few years ago I worked in a project for homeless people. There had been one young man in his early twenties that we had all been very worried about. He had absolutely no one in his life. His father was in prison for murder. His mother had been a drug addict.
When he was six years old he was placed in foster care because teachers noticed that he was coming to school in dirty clothes. It transpired he was being abused by his mother’s boyfriend. He spent the rest of his childhood in and out of children’s homes. His mother had died a few years previously of a drug overdose. He had no qualifications, nothing going for him in life. He started using drugs, got kicked out of the hostel he was living in and ended up homeless.
"You hear versions of this story time and time again; no love, no stability as a child"
When you work with homeless people, you hear versions of this story time and time again; no love, no stability as a child; a wound so deep that nothing can heal it. As if all this wasn’t enough, he also had schizophrenia. It’s fair to say that when confronted with a patient like this, it’s easy for your heart to sink. Where do you even start?
A stranger's kindness
I’d been asked to see him because the nurses had become concerned about his mood. He couldn’t see the point of keeping going. Someone with his history, in his circumstances is at a very high risk of suicide, so I saw him as an emergency.
He shuffled in, hardly making eye contact. We started talking and I asked him directly about if he had been thinking about killing himself.
"I think about it every day," he said. "Wouldn’t you if you were me?" I asked him if he had made plans. He shook his head. "I couldn’t do it to Becky," he said. I was confused. Who was Becky? I’d thought he was totally alone—no family at all. "She talks to me every day," he explained. "She’d be heartbroken. She’s the only reason I keep going."
Becky, it transpired, was not a family member or a girlfriend. She was just a commuter who, on her way home from work every day, stopped, and spoke to him.
"She never gives me money, because she says I’ll use it for drugs," he explained and added, with almost a smile, "which I would."
She only stopped for 10 minutes or so while she waited for her train, but would often buy him a coffee or sandwich and would sit with him on the train concourse.
"It’s funny," he said. "She’s got a good job but she always sits on the floor next to me."
She never failed to stop and it was a fixture in his day. It was a tiny gesture. For her, it was an insignificant event in her day; a moment of kindness and humanity while she waited for her train. Yet for him, it signified something so much more.
"She had given him a tiny glimmer of hope that he had held on to with all his might"
I suspect even now she has absolutely no idea the importance of what she had done. She had shown a damaged, unloved young man who the world had only ever shown harshness and cruelty to that, actually, there was some kindness in it after all. She had given him a tiny glimmer of hope that he had held on to with all his might. With just a tiny gesture, she had given a young man a reason to keep on living.
While it might not make headlines, sometimes it’s the small, simple acts of kindness that can make all the difference.
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