On homelessness, mental health & Robin Williams

Every time I see a homeless person on the street my heart hurts. I try not to stare too hard, partly for their benefit (so they don’t feel like a pariah) and partly for my own (to limit my emotional involvement so I don’t have to do anything). Sometimes I smile, the way I do at little old men so they think, “still got it”.

I mouth-breathe automatically to avoid the putrid smell that often accompanies them. One time, I had to vacate a subway cart due to the oppressive odor that made my breakfast churn. How inconvenient (I wasn’t the only one either).  I give roughly 25% of the time to those who ask but it’s almost like the more desperate the plea, the more I want to rush past. In short, I’m sort of a shitty human.

I can’t help but wonder what their stories are? How did they end up on the streets? Do their parents know or care? Did they endure something horrific as a kid? Are they someone’s husband or ex-wife? Are they someone’s parent? Did they leave a career behind? What talents stayed bottled up inside? Have they ever tried to get off the streets?

Ironically, some homeless people seem happier than the vacant-eyed suits wandering around Corporate America. They offer blessings and gratitude in exchange for coins. Sometimes they sing. I wonder if it’s because they have fully accepted their life choices. Perhaps there is some comfort in living life at rock bottom.

But what separates the forgotten, local homeless man from the late and great Robin Williams? Addiction is addiction. Pain is pain. It doesn’t discriminate based on age, race, occupation, family status, or meaningful contributions to society. Countless actors have proven this time and again. And we are always shocked by it. The suicide rate among famous types seems higher than average but maybe that’s because we hear about it more, care more. We expect that coveted life to be enough, as we strive for our own definition of external success. I heard the phrase, “all comedy is pain” and it is clear that we all feel immense gratitude towards Robin for sharing his beautiful pain with us.

Robin spread magic to Gen Y kids, their parents & anyone he crossed.

Robin spread magic to Gen Y kids, their parents & anyone he crossed.

It just goes to show that you can never ever compare yourself to someone else. You never ever know what is going on internally. We rarely ever share those ugly parts of ourselves and when we do, it is only after we have “conquered” them. Some people craft careers out of that (side eye at Gabrielle Bernstein). These self help gurus make happiness sound so easy and it is, while remaining complex. The message of hope is great but what happens when someone falls from grace again?  I imagine their feelings of guilt and shame, in those moments of numb reckoning, would be overwhelming.

As far as I’m concerned, if society and the media treated mental health issues with as much urgency and publicity as the Ebola virus, we’d all be better off.  I’ve had my own struggles and I know a lot of others who have to. It is our common ground and a sign of our times.  So what can we take away from this tragedy?

  1. Engage in a daily practice of self care & self love, regardless of what others think of you, how others treat you and whatever external rewards you acquire
  2. Engage in real and meaningful conversations with others – from your friends or spouse, to the person in front of you at Starbucks, if the opportunity presents itself.
  3. When someone reaches out for support, offer whatever you can and guide them towards even more helpful sources
  4. Don’t cross the street or play with your phone when another human reaches out. Perhaps take proactive action to aid suffering on this planet.

I have been thinking about lending time and energy to a cause (mental health, homelessness or mentorship) for a while, but a psychic advised me to wait until I had more inner peace, until my cup is full enough to spill over and fill someone else’s.

How full is your cup and what are you going to do about it?   

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