I watch three men, sitting alone at the bar watching the hockey game on TV. They don’t look at anyone. They don’t chat with the bartender. They don’t look at each other. They eat, sip their beer, watch the game on the screen in front of them.
I am witnessing these human stories at a pub where I have joined C.C. for dinner until his buddy arrives to watch what they hoped would be the last game of the Stanley Cup.
“Do you think those men are lonely?” I ask my husband of the 3 men at the bar.
“I don’t know,” he replies.
“In the story I make up about them, they are,” I tell him. “See their rounded shoulders. The way they never look at anyone. The way one sits huddled over his food, one arm on the bar’s counter, swooping out and around his plate as though he’s protecting it. Maybe he came from a large family where people grabbed for food and you had to fight for everything you got.
In the story I am writing about the man at the end of the bar, he feels lost, his marriage is broken down, his kids are grown up and he feels like life is avoiding him just as he avoids it.”
I am always making up stories of people’s lives. C.C. smiles and says nothing.
There was a man at the shelter where I used to work. He was like those men at the bar. Lonely. Depressed. His marriage had fallen apart. His kids were grown, their relationship with their father strained. He’d sit at the bar by his condo every night just to feel human connections around him, even though he did his best to avoid them.
One day, a stranger came in and sat beside him. They struck up a conversation. They became friends. A few days later, the stranger whispered into his ear, “You know. I’ve got something in my car that will make you feel way better than that Scotch you’re drinking.” And the man decided to try it. His friend was giving it to him for free. His friend would never hurt him.
That man had a Masters Degree in Education, worked as a High School Counsellor. And still, his loneliness drove him into taking the risk. It wasn’t long before he lost everything, including all connection with his family. He did gain a criminal record. He carries it with him today along with the scars of that five year period of his life when, at 60 years of age, he was so lost he gave up on fighting for himself and gave into the despair of homelessness.
Today, that man’s story is one of loss and hope. Of sadness and possibility.
Everyday we pass people on the street who have stories we have never heard, yet about whom we make up stories based on what we believe homelessness to be all about.
Drugs. Addiction. Crime. Loss. Abuse. Hopelessness. More crime. More drugs.
Yesterday, as I took a walk at noon, I passed a couple sitting on a concrete barrier lining the sidewalk. They were visibly homeless. Pan-handling for change. A woman in front of me stopped, handed them a bag with two sandwiches. She smiled and said, Enjoy! and walked away.
What’s her story I wondered? Did she buy the sandwiches to give away? Would she have to stop again to get one for herself and her boss or co-worker? Does she have a loved one who is lost to the street and this is her way of giving back, of making a difference.
What is the couple’s story? Where do they sleep at night? What brought them to the street?
What’s the story we tell about panhandling? People are just asking for money so they can buy drugs? Why don’t they get a job instead? What’s their problem?
What if we change that story?
What if every outstretched hand was viewed as being extended for help, not money?
What if we view our role as a response to someone asking for help?
What if the stories we told changed everything? What if instead of despair we read hope. Instead of loss, possibility. Instead of homeless, humanity.
What if we stopped believing the stories we think we know and lean into the stories of our hearts where truth is written beneath the wounds we carry. Where truth is known beneath the fears we believe are real.
What if the stories we tell are the stories of our shared human condition? The stories of what make us one humanity, not separate human beings.
Would you change your story if you could see all humanity as you? Would you write a different ending for a world desperately asking for help?