If you don't yet subscribe to our newsletter, you will have missed Naomi's personal story of an eventful Tuesday that she had a few weeks ago. Her experience that day led her to reflect on compassion - for others and for ourselves - something that is incredibly important to all of our work with COR. We didn't want you to miss out, so thought we'd share the story here as well.
We hope you enjoy reading and find some time today to show yourself, or someone else, a moment of compassion.
A, H and N xxx
As I’m sure many of us did, I woke up on Tuesday consumed with anxiety at the prospect of the workload I needed to tackle after the long weekend. I tend to hotdesk at the same café every day, but, for no particular reason, I decided to go to a different café. I managed ten minutes of emails before a woman in her late fifties came in and sat at the table next to me. Let's call her L. She was crying uncontrollably and wringing her hands, hunched over and shaking, and clearly very distressed.
I looked around the café but every person was making a conscious effort to ignore her. I bought her a coffee, gave her a pack of tissues, and then plugged my earphones in again and went back to my emails. But I couldn’t shift the feeling that I should talk to her.
Eventually, I told myself that work could wait and I went and sat beside her. I asked, ‘Is there anything I can do?’, to which she replied, ‘I don’t think I’m very well’. I asked if she suffered with depression. She nodded.
We talked for an hour, about her childhood in the care of her grandparents in Trinidad; her confusion at coming to London, having not seen her parents for years; her complex familial relationships; her frustration at being made redundant from the charity she’d worked at for a decade; and her sorrow at never having met a soulmate to have children with. It was easy to trace the trajectory of her descent into the dark world of depression and isolation.
She couldn’t remember the name of her doctor’s surgery so I called all of the practices in the area to see if they had her on their system. When I finally found the right one, I took a taxi there with her, and I agreed to accompany her to see the doctor. Finally, leaving her in their hands, I said goodbye and gave her a hug, told her it had been a pleasure to spend time with her, and that she’d been so brave asking me for help.
Back at my laptop that afternoon, all my anxiety had dissipated. The surreal experience of that morning, being privy to a stranger’s pain and hearing her deeply personal story, gave me huge perspective and made my own insecurities and worries seem so small and totally manageable. I did, however, feel a surge of other emotions: I felt angry at the people around me for feigning ignorance, I felt sad that the mental health services are so screwed, allowing people like L to slip through the system. And I felt absolutely honoured to have heard L’s story.
L is articulate, erudite and elegant; she reads three papers a day, loves books of all genres, and once owned a white cat called Winston. In the three hours I spent with her, she made me laugh and cry. She is also extremely lonely and very unwell. Storytelling is a way of giving language to vulnerability, and that is exactly what L did by sharing her story with me.
I have encountered many people like L and I have learnt something from all of them. There was T, the 60-year old ex-boxer who’d lost most of his teeth, didn’t drink or use as one might assume, but, after a stint in prison, had struggled to re-integrate into society and lived on the street or in hostels. He told me that life is all about connection and that he still tries to smile at people and say hello every day, even though most of the time they pretend he’s invisible.
And M, the tiny old lady from the park, who sat on the same bench every day last summer, and who always remembered my dogs’ names but never mine. M, who I sat with for two hours whilst she told me about her life - racked with abuse and battles with mental health – and how she had gained a degree in psychology, aged 50. She gifted me a book on Transactional Analysis, having underlined key paragraphs for me.
At 17, my best friend had a psychotic episode and she has suffered ever since, yet she still has a sunny disposition and a zest for life. And finally, there’s my Mum. She is kind and gentle, highly intelligent, quiet, caring and creative. She is also bi-polar. And the look in L’s eyes, I have seen in the eyes of my dear Mum many a time. And that is perhaps why I offered L a helping hand, because I desperately hope someone would do the same for my Mum.
So perhaps next time you see someone in distress, don’t submit to bystander bias. Do something, however small. Next time you pass a homeless person, please don’t ignore them. Look them in the eye and acknowledge them. And if you encounter someone seemingly unstable, ask yourself whether they have a story. And ultimately, through imparting compassion to others, you might just learn to give a little compassion to yourself.
Lots of love,