Early start, quiet walk
On a couple of mornings between Christmas and New Year I got up in the dark and walked through the frost and the dawning day to do some voluntary work with Crisis at Christmas. That short period between 25th December and 1st January often feels quiet, feels peaceful; and pregnant with the promise of renewal which hovers in the air now the shortest day is passed and resolutions are beginning to assemble on the horizon.
As early as it was, and as sleepy as I felt, I found I relished this walk. On those two days, although I knew people all around me were getting up to go to work, care for relatives, head off on trips, clean and cook, I barely saw a soul as I made my way to the homelessness centre I’d been allocated to. The rhythm of walking, the small clouds of my breath hanging in the cold air, the sky changing slowly from blackish-blue to an azure streaked with pink, the skeletal, frosted plants gathered on the banks of the railway sidings – all of this made up a world of beginnings, where hope and joy are implicit.
Tapestry of lives
This sense I experienced as I put one foot in front of the other in the icy morning felt particularly poignant in the context of the people I was meeting that week. In my role of befriender, I chatted with people who told me about the music they loved to play, the jobs they hoped to get, the houses they wanted to move in to. One man, a Scot who had joined the British army in 1964 and served in Borneo and Northern Ireland, showed me a photo of his first great-grandchild, born that same day. Sitting outside in the winter sunshine, talking with someone who’d worked for years in a restaurant and then fell under the spell of cocaine and lost everything, I watched a young man at a table close by perform card tricks with wonderful panache. Chatting with someone else, an older man from Eastern Europe, we found a common language in Italian. He had been asleep on a park bench and beaten up badly on Christmas Eve. He was hoping to return to Italy soon, where he had lived for several years, to be reunited with his family.
Same, different, same
It’s a well-used but accurate statement to say I felt privileged to be in the company of the people I met over that short time, hearing their stories. The window I gained on to their past lives, current state of wellbeing and future plans revealed our interconnectedness. We all want the same things: safety, security, health, good relationships, opportunities to develop and grow; and we all suffer in similar ways where these things are lacking or threatened. I’m acutely aware that I am not grappling with urgent issues to do with my health and home in the same way as the people I met. But the humour, sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, trust, hope that was shared with me, these I felt I could fully relate to.
The need for an existential compass
Over Christmas I was talking with some of my family about how best to contribute something positive in this seemingly ever more divided, divisive world we inhabit where an “existential compass”, as referred to by John F Schumaker in ‘the demoralized mind’ seems ever harder to hold on to. After some time, our discussion brought us to consensus on two things: both the importance of keeping on keeping on; and that no contribution is too small.
Keeping psycho-spiritual crisis at bay, day by day
Each morning I plan to find a few minutes to remind myself of the conclusions we reached over Christmas, whether on a frosty walk to work or sitting quietly or doing some gardening or doing the washing up. Giving myself this space to reflect and to notice how I’m reacting to the world around me makes me more alert to the deep connections between all of us. And this goes a long way to warding off the psycho-spiritual crisis that Schumaker discusses in his article in the New Internationalist, making me better placed to reach out to others in some kind of need.