It is a quiet Saturday morning on Kensington High Street in London. The locals and tourists haven’t swarmed the shops yet; even Whole Foods isn’t open. I’m grateful for peace and quiet as I walk towards Hyde Park, excited to be back in my old haunt, and even more so to be doing London on my terms now.
I’m listening to one of my favourite tunes circa 1999, Laurent Garnier, Man with the Red Face, and even though I’m walking, I can’t keep still. The music moves through me, connecting me to my surroundings. I smile at the geese and their goslings, raise my head towards the grey-blue sky, and start dancing on my own through the park.
Thankfully there’s only a few joggers around, although at this point I don’t think I really care. I actually feel a little sorry for them. Sorry, as in, I am sad for them that they have lost their joy. They don’t look like they’re having fun as they plod by, with the weight of the world is on their shoulders.
I remember that feeling and it brings me back to my own current joy. Grateful that I am free from needing to go for a run, even when my body doesn’t want to. Grateful that I’ve let go of enough of my shame that I don’t mind being seen bopping and twirling on my own next to the Serpentine Lake.
By the time I use up all the data on my phone, I don’t need the music anymore to dance through my walk. ‘Look at the heron!’, ‘Hello Mr Jogger!’, and ‘Oh wow! It’s the Peter Pan statue!’ I remember the first time I walked by this statue when I was ten, and I let myself feel the excitement of being a kid again.
I leave the park and walk back to my hotel. By this time, I can smell the freshly baked croissants, the roasted coffee from the cafes, and the exhaust from the double decker busses is very present too.
I feel connected to, and am enjoying my surroundings, and that’s when I see the homeless and schizophrenic man with a dog. The sign by his feet tells me this. The drawings and sketches at his feet tell me more.
He has talent, yet here he is on the street.
I get curious.
You know those split seconds moments in life where it’s like the pause button’s been hit and you slow down long enough to realize you’re at a fork in the road, and here’s where you get to choose your own adventure? That’s what it felt like.
I could walk right by him, follow the script that says I don’t have anything worthwhile to give him because I don’t have my wallet on me, and really how is the customary few pounds that I ‘should’ give, really going to make a difference in his life?
Or I could walk over and talk to him as if he were just another human being.
Still on a high from my morning full of connection, I opted for the latter.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I remember noticing that I felt different while talking to him. In the past when I’ve encountered a homeless person, a flood of feelings come that perhaps you can relate to.
- Guilty for not having any money on me, and even more guilt for potentially wasting his time when he could be talking with someone who was going to support him financially.
- Shame for being more privileged and luckier than he.
- Fear of what everyone else in my life will think if they knew I was talking with him, and what is the right thing to do by them, the person, and me.
But this time was different, because for the first time, I didn’t feel sorry for him. I felt sorry with him.
I felt connected to him because as I heard his story, I realized that his story could’ve just have easily have been my story.
This is the story of Mark: He had mental health issues, he met a lovely woman who understood him and came alongside him and together they started a business. They had a child. They were happy. Then his wife and child were killed by a drunk driver. Mark was left grieving her loss, missing the one person in his life who got him, feeling the pain from the irony that his family was taken by alcohol misuse even though he had kept himself sober and done what he could to prevent a heritage of generational alcoholism from being passed down.
He lost everything that was dear to him and was left without support. The hurt and pain of all of that left him on the streets.
And this is the place I felt I knew Mark better than some of my own family.
I have been in a place, more than once in my life, where I have met loneliness; feeling like no one could understand me, what I was going through, or how I felt about myself.
I’ve felt the sadness of losing the dream of what I thought my life was going to look like. And I’ve felt the wounds and the hurt of my heart that makes it hard to get up in the morning and function in a meaningful way.
As I walked back to my hotel, I was reminded of the delicacy of my own humanity. I am no different from Mark or any other person who finds themselves homeless. It’s like we are all holding onto a rung of the same ladder, and sometimes life happens and we can’t hold on anymore. So we fall and catch the next rung we can hold on to.
Some of us just start higher up the ladder, so our falls don’t take us so far down. Had I not started on the rung of the ladder that I did, perhaps I’d be in a similar situation. You never know.
And at that moment I decided to do something drastically different. I decided to make that moment the middle of my story with Mark, not the end.
I asked myself how I could help him. How could I contribute to his life? And not just in the token fiver to buy him some breakfast or lunch. How could I contribute in a way only my heart can?
The answer was not in the ‘I have more than you, so here is some of what I have.’
It was in the, ‘I am the same as you. I have experienced what it’s like to feel stuck and be in a place where my world feels hopeless. And here’s how I got out.’ Sharing the vulnerabilities of my own humanity.
So I went back to my hotel room, and wrote out a set of questions that I use whenever I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place (you will have received these questions too when you joined our community).
I walked back to Mark with these questions written down, along with some practical help so he’d have a place to stay that night. I told Mark that if he asks himself these questions daily, guaranteed his life will change.
He read them and said, ‘Wow, these are deep.’
Yes, that’s me. Introspective and deep. But I’m not apologizing for it anymore.
We chatted for a few more minutes and as I went to leave, he asked if he could give me something.
This man had literally nothing besides his dog, a few blankets, and the clothes on his back, yet he felt compelled to contribute to my life in the same way I desired to contribute to his.
Another reminder of our shared humanity.
He untaped one of his drawings from the concrete slab it was showcased on, and handed it to me.
‘I know this is the grubbiest one I have, but it’s the one that means the most to me and I want you to have it.’
And as he handed me the drawing, he handed me his heart. He shared his loss and his pain, and his love and his joy with me.
And as he did, his face changed. He was no longer the homeless and schizophrenic man with a dog carrying his burdens on his own. He was a human that had something of value to give to another human.
And as he shared his value, his heart, with me, his face lit up as he received his own worth.
I’m sharing this story with you because it was a mysterious event in my life that I am still reflecting on. What made me open and willing to talk with a stranger that morning? How does the interplay of giving and receiving actually work?
But the thing that I marvel at the most, is how the exploration of my own feelings, not only in the months and years gone by, but in the moments of that very morning, allowed me to be free from my normal guilt, fear, and shame.
It was the practice of moving towards my own feelings instead of running away, that allowed me to put myself in his shoes and move towards him, instead of turning away.