Between all the negative headlines in our communities and political forums exist stories no one is talking about, even those impacted by their realities. Stories of loneliness and alienation; private battles often masterfully concealed by ordinary people unsure how to ask others for help.
The story I’m about to share is one of those stories; a reminder that this journey through life should never be solely about self-gratification and a lack of true compassion but rather a mission to provide genuine kindness and acknowledgment to others, especially when no one is asking. Let me explain.
Recently, a thirty-year-old man set out on what appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. A popular attraction and destination during the afternoon hours, the young man knew he wouldn’t find himself alone, which was precisely his intention.
Later in the day, after the authorities discovered his suicide note left clearly on the kitchen table of his tiny, one-bedroom apartment, his story started to unfold.
His existence was plagued by loneliness and alienation as he struggled to connect and engage with others, especially those who couldn’t see beyond their own self-serving agendas. Such struggles often left him feeling defeated, unappreciated, and hopeless.
The young man’s note outlined his plan for that afternoon. He would walk across the Golden Gate Bridge during its busier hours, and if no one he passed smiled or said hello to him, he would jump.
Though the response he solicited was straightforward, for him, it was enough to confirm or deny people’s willingness to offer a kind word or a smile to a total stranger.
We’ll never know how many people he passed that afternoon – one, ten, twenty, or more – before getting the answer he was searching for, before confirming that the loneliness and alienation plaguing his existence was real.
When I heard this story recounted as part of a much larger series on societies’ inability to show compassion and empathy, it made me incredibly sad.
I could understand how this young man must have felt, having experienced feelings of loneliness and alienation myself throughout my life. Some days, all you need is one person to assure you that you’re recognized and valued, and other days it’s utterly heartbreaking to tolerate the silence.
In today’s emotionally challenged society, we’ve conditioned ourselves to suppress emotions such as empathy, compassion, and even generosity, believing they’re worthless unless you can find some personal value for yourself.
In his book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman writes, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind, and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection, or compassionate action.”
So often, “our problems and preoccupations” are unimportant but exacerbated by our mandate to be unavailable to others – too busy to be present and attentive, uninterested in listening to the thoughts and feelings of others when we’re so accustomed to monopolizing the conversation.
Many fail to realize that a world exists outside the self-serving environments we’ve created. Family members, friends, neighbors, and strangers in the community are all struggling with loneliness and alienation; amazingly, the remedy is in our grasp.
Offering unsolicited kindness.
Society rarely spends time on serious self-reflection, as so many of us loathe admitting our shortcomings, let alone trying to alter them. Instead, we convince ourselves that we’re kind and compassionate individuals with superficial examples that allow us to continue this falsified narrative.
When was the last time you honestly thought about someone else and reacted without solicitation, listening to the feelings and concerns of others with a compassionate heart while fully engaged in the moment? When have you given someone else the gift of your time without any expectations in return?
Mental illness is a massive issue in society today, yet one would never know it given how infrequently it’s spoken about in the headlines.
The young man above may have had other things going on which caused him to consider suicide as an escape, and maybe a smile from a stranger wouldn’t have changed anything at all.
But what if it could?
American author and motivational speaker Leo F. Buscaglia once said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Stop wasting so much time on yourself and start offering a kind, compassionate heart to those who aren’t asking. Be the reason someone smiles today. You just might be saving someone’s life.