When my kids were young we lived right next to the elementary school they went to. My oldest son went there first of course and his two younger brothers would make sure they were bouncing on the trampoline at 2:15pm so they could see him get out of class and walk to our house. The trampoline was purposely put close to the fence so they could do this. There was giggling and smiles everywhere. Those were magical times.
When his two younger brothers joined him in elementary school they all started to make friends that would come over after school and play. My oldest son's best friend at that time remained a best friend through most of high school. Unfortunately toward the end of high school that young man drifted more and more into ill mental health. I remember being young and on the cusp of trying to future out who I was and who ia was going to be. I had high hopes for myself. I also had a healthy dose of impostor's syndrome - who am I to think I can be anything to anyone in this world?
My then wife (amicably divorced later) and daughter (we had moved before she was old enough to jump on a trampoline and watch her three older brothers come home) and I were walking into a burger joint in town one night. It was later in the day and I had not yet approached a stranger and asked them to share Two Important Things. As we approached the entrance to the restaurant there was a middle-aged woman standing there. I opened the door for my wife and daughter and told them I'd be in shortly. I paused and addressed the woman.
"Excuse me," I said.
"Are you Steve?" she asked.
"No, I'm not," I answered.
"Oh. I am meeting a Steve here to buy these baseball cards. I thought you must be him."
"Aha. Sorry to add any confusion. Although I collected baseball cards at one time I don't any more. That and I'm not a Steve." I smiled then continued. "I am conducting an experiment. I have a hypothesis that the world is a better place when there are fewer strangers in it. I'm out to learn two important things from someone new every day. Someone I've never really met or gotten to know. May I ask you what two important things you'd share with the world to help make it a better place?"
She didn't bat an eye and delivered her two things rapidly. "Be authentic in who you are and be kind."
I asked her to elaborate if she could. "Yeah, sure. I see so many people put on faces for different people. Different faces for different people. So much so that you wouldn't recognize them if you knew them as one of the other faces. I just think that is unhealthy. It doesn't allow someone to really know who they are. They should be authentic for their own health first of all. Doing it for others is good too because you don't want to make things difficult or confusing, Right?
"As for being kind, I think that doesn't need much elaboration. Do you?" she said, looking firmly at me.
"No. It doesn't need elaboration, but I love a good story. Does one come to mind where kindness won the day or could have won the day?"
"Yeah, of course," she said. She was so open and available. It was if we had been speaking friends for decades. It was instant rapport and friendship.
"Where I work, we get a lot of teens coming in and out. A lot of them have no real families to go to and find themselves wanting to spend all their "family" time with our office. We're kind of set up for that, but only to a degree. Now and then we'll get some alpha male or female teen that is new and comes in there and wants to shake things up or establish their authority. Part of me wants to laugh because I can see right through them but I know that isn't what will help."
"We had this one young lady come in and just be disruptive as hell. She was questioning our intentions. She was making accusations that we were going to physically molest some or all of these teens. She was snooping into restricted areas and documents as if she was allowed. It was a real problem. Some of us tried to redirect her and talk to her but she would raise her voice and her level of accusations. We all knew she was afraid and this was her coping mechanism but we couldn't get her to talk."
"I thought I knew how to get to her. The very next disruptive thing she did I popped up out of my chair about 20 feet from her and told her 'That's enough!' I went on to berate her for coming into someone else's home and being a bully. I said we knew all about bullys - they are that way because they are scared of something."
"I asked her to sit down with one or two of us and work out what she was scared of. My voice was calmer. My mannerisms were friendly. Of course, her defensive mechanisms ran her and she stormed out of there that night, but two days later, she was back and asked to talk to me in private then shared her fears with me. She was a different person with all of us after that and even helped other teens get help. I had to disrupt her pattern with that initial anger and it worked. She was now open to my kindness."
I thanked her for her story and went in to meet my wife. On the way in I saw my son's former best friend.
I talk to his parents now and then and they said he was in bad shape. He was living on the street or couch surfing and they suspected he was into some hard drugs. My son had shared with my one reason he no longer associated with him was because he was regularly concocting his own drugs to take. Even more dangerous still.
He was sitting in a booth. I tapped on the table and said hello to him. He didn't recognize me at first but then hopped up to give me a quick hug. He was quite fidgety and acted nervous. He invited me to sit and I did. It was clear that he was paranoid. He was going on and on about how he was being watched - even now in the restaurant.
I found it easy to be kind. He was clearly mentally ill. However, I had a difficult time selecting a topic to talk about. I didn't want to feed his paranoia. I didn't feel I had the time to try and help him see he needed help (we had to get going soon) and I felt insincere talking about superficial things. But I did end up doing the latter.
As we were finishing up and my wife came by with our bag of sandwiches she offered him one. He declined politely. As I got up he gave me another hug and held me longer than the first one. I felt he was trying to tell me something through the hug that his words could not. He pulled out an old business card he collected and wrote his email address on the back for me to get in touch with him by. I said I would and we left.
Unfortunately he was picked up by the police in the next couple of days and we could not exchange emails. He's getting out soon and I plan on looking him up and asking him the same question I'm asking everyone else. Hopefully it speaks to that kid inside of him we all once knew. The one that loved life and made anything possible. The one that had hopes and dreams for a meaningful and fulfilling future.
I hope we haven't lost that kid. I hope he hasn't either.
That inner kid of ours is our hope. It is our source of untapped potential. It is the creator of that which was once impossible. It is the open space where all paths are visible, including those to a better self identity and ones often identified as mental illness.
It would be wise to understand the true power of out mind before attempting to harness it. Ignoring its power or ignoring its ability to be harnessed are both paths towards challenging, often disappointing lives. Be wise. Be wary. But most importantly, be curious!
Namaste and all that good stuff.