What a Homeless Guy Taught Me About Kindness
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Dalai Lama
In our Me-First emotional economy, it sometimes seems like we've marginalized the nourishing character strength of kindness to something that, if we think of it at all, it's only after we've taken care of our own preoccupations.
I'm by no means an exception.
A couple of months ago, however, I was forty-five minutes early for a coaching session in London. So I found myself a quiet corner in a coffee shop near the client's office and bought myself a tea while I prepped.
I wasn't looking forward to this meeting. The client I was seeing had done some things I thought inappropriate between sessions with me. And, as how you are with your coach, is how you are in life, I wanted to be bold and give her feedback on how her behavior had landed with me. So that I could offer her the opportunity to review it on a wider scale.
It's part of the coach's job. Still, for some reason I felt anxious ahead of the conversation.
For a while as I sat in the cafe, I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I almost missed the homeless guy come in. He had a handful of change he'd collected - I imagined - from begging, and asked the barista what he could buy with it. The barista came out from behind his counter and surveyed the shelves of food and drink. But it turned out the only thing the guy could afford was a cup of tea, which he ordered and waited for.
I looked at him from a distance. It was difficult to tell but I guessed he might be in his mid thirties. He had filthy hair and skin, ragged clothes, torn shoes. He took his tea and then searched for some place to sit. The other folks in the shop kept their noses in their smartphones and computers praying he wasn't coming near them with his angst and his smells.
And I'm not sure why that day but something in me felt compelled to reach out to him. So I got off my butt, went over to where he'd just sat down and said,
"Can I buy you something to eat?"
He looked at me oddly.
"Oh, no thanks, love," he said. "I'm just going to put loads of sugar in this tea."
But I insisted.
"Let me at least get you a soup."
He thought about it.
"Actually, I'd love a soup," he said.
"Well, come on," I said, inviting him back up to the shelves. "Tell me what kind you'd like."
He chose. I paid. And then I went back to my seat, thinking that might be that.
But when his soup was ready, he brought it across to where I was sitting and asked if it would be okay for him to join me. I'm ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to worry what other people would think, Or, whether I'd be able to stand the stench. Or whether he'd turn out to be crazy or violent and I'd find him frightening. I also wondered about the prepping I thought I should be doing to get my head in gear for my client. But I saw something in the guy's eyes and in the end said,
"Sure, sit down."
And then he started talking to me. Just at first about how hard it was to eat solid food after days of eating nothing. How it made his stomach swell up and gave him a lot of pain.
I asked him how long he'd been on the street and he told me, a couple of years.
He'd been in the army, he said, and had done several tours of duty, including Iraq. When he came home, he'd started drinking heavily. And then he got in with some guys who did drugs and so he began to use drugs himself. He'd been married, but his wife and family had disowned him, and he ended up on the street.
He said he'd had a sense of who he was while he wore his soldier's uniform, but when he left the army he'd lost something that he now felt unable to get back.
"And you see some things," he kept saying, shaking his head. "You see some things."
"I can only imagine," I said.
As he spoke I thought back to more than a decade before when I'd trained as a psychotherapist. And how one of my favorite parts of that learning journey had been the eighteen months I'd spent being a voluntary counselor at the Caravan. It's literally a green van that sits in the grounds of St James' Church in Piccadilly which serves as a drop in center for folk that live on the street. I remembered how, from having in the beginning thought a lot of the homeless folks were frightening, I'd ended up enjoying being with them. I'd even filled my three-hours-a-week slot with three regulars who came by for tea and chat. I think that I and the Caravan were a kind of lifeline. They often shared, not without a lot of shame and sadness, how they sometimes spoke to no-one else all week. How most other people acted like they were invisible. It might sound like I was doing a great service to these people and maybe I was. But in another way, they were my teachers. Because it was from them I learned how to sit and listen, and to know the value of that to another.
But I'd forgotten that in recent years. And indeed how much I loved just listening to another. My coaching work had eclipse my small psychotherapy practice, and in recent years I've taken advice on my potency from coaching gurus, who it seems to me are often more intent on who they are as coaches rather than who their clients are as people.
When it came time to leave my homeless friend, I gave him my apologies and he said, "I must have bored you shitless."
"Not at all," I said. "I've enjoyed talking to you." And I had.
All of which meant that, when I went to see my client, I'd let go of something. I felt open and calm. Instead of thinking about how I wanted to get a message across, I stepped back and began by listening to her deeply, the way the homeless guy had helped me rediscover I could listen. And when the time was right I shared with her what I needed to, but I shared it from a place of kindness and compassion. Not from a place of needing to have had impact.
And it all came from a completely random act of kindness.
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And, on the subject of kindness...
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