Recently, I saw this art installation in a local second-hand shop here in the village. Admittedly, at first I thought “What on earth is that?”, yet the more I looked, the more intrigued I became. When I read the description of the piece, however, and what the artist was trying to depict, I looked at it with different eyes. I now saw it as one of the saddest things I have ever seen. The card read: “Closing Time” This piece represents the figure you often see in a bar, the one with their head on the table. They’ve been there so long they’ve become invisible and the barman has closed the bar around them. They are trapped, not in a closed bar, but in a spiderweb of loneliness.
It made me think, think about those times of casual carelessness of which we are all guilty, when we look but don’t see, when we hear but don’t listen. We see someone staring into middle distance and pass them by, even when we see they are still there, in the same position, a little while later. Or the elderly neighbour that you haven’t seen in a couple of days. Should I knock on the door? No. How will that make it better? They’ll only think I’m interfering.
The truth is that some of the most powerful words in the English language are “Are you OK?” Those three little, inconsequential words can, when put together, literally save a life.
Take, for example, the case of 16-year-old Dublin teenage, Jamie Harrington. Two years ago, he was on his way to an American sweet shop in Dublin, when he saw a man sitting on the ledge of a bridge. Jamie said, .” I stopped and asked him if he was okay, but I knew from the look in his eyes he wasn’t, and he didn’t say anything either, but I saw tears coming from his eyes. I pleaded with him for a while to come down and sit on the steps, and eventually he did. We sat on the sidewalk on the south side of the Liffey and talked for about 45 minutes, about what was happening to him, why was he feeling that way… I couldn’t leave him there alone, but I had to go, so I was going to ring an ambulance. I told him they could help him feel better. But he was like “please, please don’t call them, I’m fine, I just want to walk around for a while, I’m gonna be okay!” I told him to please let me ring an ambulance, that I wouldn’t sleep knowing he was just walking around alone. So I rang it, and he was taken to St. James Hospital. I got his number so I would know what was going on with him for a good while… And about three months ago, he texted me that his wife is pregnant, they’re having a boy, and they’re naming him after me. Can you believe that? They’re going to name their child after me… He said in that moment that I approached him, he was just about to jump, and those few words saved his life. That they’re still ringing in his head every day. “Are you okay?” I can’t really understand how these few words could save his life, but he told me, “Imagine if nobody ever asked you those words…” “
Take too, the incident of four policemen in Rome, Italy, who were called because neighbours overheard an elderly couple crying in their apartment. When the policemen arrived, 84-year-old Jole and her 94-year-old husband, Michele, told them that no one had visited them in months and that after watching TV, they were not only lonely, but desperately saddened by the state of the world. Rather than simply leaving, the policemen tried to offer them comfort in the only way they knew how: by cooking them a dinner of spaghetti with parmesan. The policemen, Andrea, Alessandro, Ernesto and Mirko, said “It is not always an easy life. Especially when the city is empty and the neighbours are away on vacation. Sometimes the loneliness melts into tears. Sometimes it’s like a summer storm. It comes suddenly and overtakes one”
But what if someone is behaving violently, or erratically? What do you do then? Well, if you are an elderly lady on the Vancouver Sky Train, you offer your hand in support. Mr. Taha, a fellow passenger on the train gave an account of what happened. He said, “I saw the most incredible display of humanity on the sky train. A six foot five man suffering from drug abuse and\or mental health issues was being very aggressive on the bus with erratic movements, cursing, shouting, etc. While everyone was scared, this one seventy year old woman reached out her hand, tightly gripping his hand until he calmed down, sat down silently, with eventual tears in his eyes. I spoke to the woman after this incident and she simply said, “I’m a mother and he needed someone to touch.” And she started to cry. Don’t fear or judge the stranger on the bus: life does not provide equal welfare for all its residents”
With one in four of us likely to experience some form of mental health issue in our lives, wouldn’t we want someone to reach out their hand, cook us a meal, or simply ask us if we are OK? If someone is physically sick, people are on hand to offer support and comfort in order to make them better. Yet, when it comes to be mentally unwell, people shy away, unsure of what to do, or unwilling to get involved. It is at the times when people are at their most vulnerable that they are most in need of kindness.
How we treat the weak, the vulnerable, and seemingly insignificant members of our society is what defines us. I for one would like to be defined by being kind. For as these examples show, kindness is magic.