I can’t put my finger on the exact cause, but for me, January’s been kind of a difficult month. For sure, the cold and dark days set the tone. But I’ve also been feeling extra-emotional and often on the verge of tears. For example, the city where I live (like most cities in California) has a serious problem with homelessness: people living rough on the streets, in parks, under freeway overpasses, behind buildings.
A lot of these poor souls have dogs – even cats with them. But two days ago I saw a very scruffy looking street person – a man – with a tiny puppy that looked around four or five weeks old. I was in my car (at a stoplight), with the heat blowing as hard as it could. The man was in layers of clothing and blankets. He held the little white puppy in his large, red hands. There and then, my tears flowed: the scene was so sad-sweet-lonely-disturbing. I’ve actually taken the time, in the past, to buy food for people who look like they really need it. But this puppy-situation seemed and felt especially bleak to me; and I felt especially helpless to ‘help’ in any meaningful way (as the cars behind me began laying-on their horns, once the light had turned green).
I continue to hear and read about how our lives have been impacted – and not in a good way – by the way we insulate ourselves from other beings by staying-busy with our electronics. The amount of time we spend on our phones and computers; the ear buds that mask the daily weirdness or boredom of a commute; the explosion of podcasts that fill our ears with whatever we think we should be learning about or catching up on. I get all of that. I’m living all of that. Still, I notice – increasingly – that when I put in my buds while I racewalk my 4 miles, I’m less inclined to take in the wonder of Nature all around me. I’m less inclined to make eye-contact with joggers and dog-walkers. I’d rather hear the tunes that motivate my rhythm than the birds filling the trees in the county island where I live.
Thinking about the way we choose to spend so much time in our own heads, very selectively (and often reluctantly) turning our attention to our jobs, families, pets and friends, I was today reminded of just how much we are capable of improving one another’s lives through human contact and caring. Among those who study such things, there’s a renewed interest in “long forgotten” research done decades ago, with severely depressed people. The kind of depression that causes the human heart to give up, and give in, to thoughts of self-destruction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of 2019, there are twice as many suicides as there are homicides in the U.S. Turns out, the methods and studies of a man named Jerry Motto (a psychiatrist, 1921-2015) are now being re-recognized as a total no-brainer for severe depression, actually reducing the number of deaths by suicide in dramatic numbers. There’s no ‘magic’ to it: it’s as simple as a quick, caring connection between two people. The person offering that connection – eye contact, a smile, a generic greeting — can actually be a random stranger who just notices loneliness and isolation, in whatever forms they present.
As I go about my always-full days, I often think that the faster the pace of life goes, the less people around me want to be “bothered” by humanity. What we’re learning, with statistics to prove it, is that this is actually the polar-opposite of what’s going on. Suicide-survivor Kevin Hines travels the country to share a message that could be taken directly from Dr. Motto’s studies.
As I listened to him talk about the day he decided to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, Kevin relates that someone – anyone – who ‘registered’ his presence on the Bridge, and who cared enough to ask him “Are you ok?” might have altered his decision that day. Sometimes ‘living bravely’ means being brave for someone else: taking a chance by looking into someone’s eyes; by smiling or by starting a conversation; or, by pulling over to the curb and making sure a stranger’s ready to care for a tiny puppy. Yes, I’m like you – I’ve been smacked-down while trying to be ‘human’. But I’ve realized that I can’t allow those experiences to force me into a corner of not caring. It’s not my nature, and it’s not what I’m here for.