Something I will always remember: a freezing cold November day in Reading train station, on route home from Borneo to my grandfather’s funeral. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet, but there was comfort in that discomfort. Better to concentrate on the hurt in them than the unbearable loss in my heart.
Something broke through; the sound of a woman openly crying on a bench next to me. Instead of people reaching out and comforting her, papers went up; people looked anywhere but her. It was as if they pretended it wasn’t happening so they didn’t have to act. I don’t know what was more upsetting– seeing her cry or the way people were ignoring it.
I sat next to her. Her father had just died and she was on route to the airport to fly to America. She hated flying. We sat on that bench and shared hot tea and talked until the emptiness subsided. Nothing could change the fact that, afterwards, we both had to continue those painful journeys; but it did mean that we left believing that there was, indeed, life after death.
Social behavioural experiments suggest that, in an event of crisis, the more people there are around you, the less likely you are to receive help, known as the bystander effect (1) This is due to our beliefs that other people will help, that they will be the ones that are or will take action. This increases when we don’t know the person. If we all took this stance, we’d be in trouble.
I believe that the majority of us want to help, as well as to be helped, but the request makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to make it better. And, this is the hard thing; sometimes we can’t make it better. We are taught about facts and figures in school but we are given no manual on how to deal with the emotional part of being human.
The fact is that pain is part of life. At some point– no matter how happy, successful, rich, or powerful we are– remember that one of us could be the next person who is crying on a bench, pacing in a flat, or sitting on a bridge; wondering what is the point of life. Then, we will need the support to carry on.
It is exposing, and it takes guts to say– this is me, these are my scars. This is where I’ve been hurt. In the face of this bravery, the very least we owe to each other is to be the one who breaks through the barrier and notices the pain.
So here’s the thing to remember: we don’t have to fix things– people are extremely resourceful to do that themselves. What none of us want is to be is alone. Knowing that there is someone out there who cares, who understands, can be enough.
So this is my invitation to you: when someone looks sad, notice. When you walk past someone in the street, smile. If someone is alone today, accompany them. Look for a way that you can extend the offer of kindness.
Together, we can make kindness our daily practice.
- Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.