To celebrate the birthday of The Hotness, we brought the whole family to New York for the first weekend of December. That's seven adults, a six-year-old and an infant, if you're counting. Thank goodness for frequent flyer miles and hotel points!
NYC is a magical place that gets more magical the closer to Christmas. I really wanted the six-year-old to get caught up in the decorations and spirit of the city... and he did. We all did. With a few "extras."
Soon after arriving, we stepped out of the subway station to find a man punching a light pole. I don't mean shadow boxing... I'm talking bare knuckle, barroom brawl pounding blows. It wouldn't be surprising if he has broken fingers. I'm far from a psychiatrist, but it was pretty obvious this guy wasn't living in the same reality as the rest of us.
We moved the kiddos to the center of our pack for safety, though statistically, this man was only a threat to himself. Hotness grabbed my hand and squeezed; something she does when witnessing someone in pain who cannot be comforted. There was not a thing we could do.
After more sightseeing and shopping, we all gathered for a meal. We talked about this man and my step kids pointed out how many of the people we encountered who are homeless had something in common: a similarly colored sleeping bag. I, of course, was not aware of this.
We hypothesized ways a charitable organization had likely stepped up to offer warmth to people living on the street. Someone pointed out the people they saw who were rooting through the trash for food. Then, one of the kids mentioned seeing news reports of individuals organizing events so restaurant food that would have been wasted would instead be offered to hungry folks. Sitting there over lunch in a warm restaurant with plenty of food (and shopping bags full of Christmas presents) made me feel like a fat, privileged, capitalistic pig who disregards human suffering.
I mean, I can slip some cash into the Styrofoam cup of someone begging. I can box up an order of food and give it to one of those people trying to find lunch in a garbage can... but what else can I do, I mean really do, to help? It feels like nothing.
Then, I had to take a breath and think. Situations aren't always helpless or hopeless, as they may seem at first glance. Every hurt, every person in need gives us the opportunity to be compassionate, present and to do good.
Now, I'm not going to blow smoke at ya and say that was a turning point where we all dedicated our lives to help the plight of people who are homeless and/or mentally ill. I'm not gonna lie and say we spent the rest of the trip working in soup kitchens and at shelters. But, I also had to be truthful with myself on one count: we hadn't turned the proverbial blind eye and deaf ear. We had, in fact, recognized the suffering of other human beings. And, recognition is the first step.
Not that we hadn't recognized suffering before. Heck, here in Orlando, we often see people living out of a car in the parking lot of Lowe's. Or people holding signs asking for food or money at about every intersection. The pain is real. This time of year, it's an especially striking contrast to the cheerful signs and decorations of the seasons. But it doesn't begin - or end - on the street corners of our cities.
Look, we all know the holidays can be a time of great pain. Throw out the mental illness aspect altogether and we still know that human relationships are tough. We've been sold this idea that the holidays are always merry and bright, but human beings, with all our shortcomings and frailty, can mean that emotions are often tender; especially around this time of year.
There are homes across the world where the holidays will be bittersweet at best - and devastating at worst. Past hurt, broken relationships, unmet expectations, missing loved ones, empty stockings.
In all the chaos of the season, I encourage you to offer compassion to others...and to yourself. It is a gift that costs nothing but pays great dividends.