Lessons on Courage from a Mother and a Homeless Man

“Fear cannot take what you do not give it.” ~ Christopher Coan

Fear is something that we all experience, in some form, every single day. Fear of failure, rejection, pain, loss … Just the thought of these worst case scenarios can be completely paralysing. This week on my kindness journey I met two people whose everyday realities would be many people’s worst fear. But rather than giving up or dwelling on the negative they chose to respond with courage and even gratitude.

For my 92nd day of kindness I donated blood. At the blood bank a middle-aged lady sat next to me sitting back with eyes closed, headphones in and a smile on her face. I admired how calm and content she seemed. I don’t have a problem with needles and I feel very positive about donating, but I still don’t enjoy the experience enough to be smiling about it! When the nurse came over to check on the lady, she took out her headphones, breathed deeply and said, “I’m okay as I keep listening to the music.” The nurse enquired what she was listening to and she said it was her son’s favourite band. It helped her to overcome her fear of needles and think instead about her teenage son, who was seriously ill and relied on blood transfusions to stay alive – surely one of the worst fears for any mother. She said she regretted letting her fear stop her from donating before he became ill but a positve side to his illness was that it had given her the determination to help others now.

The nurse nodded knowingly – I suppose she hears those kinds of stories every day. But I certainly don’t. I wanted to tell the lady that she was amazingly courageous. That her story was incredibly touching. That she had just made me really, truly realise how important this all was. But before I could say anything at all she had put her headphones back in, closed her eyes and begun to smile again. And just imagine, for eight minutes of our time and a little bit of discomfort we could all be giving three more people the happiness of knowing their loved one has a second chance at life.

On my 93rd day of kindness I experienced another story of facing fears that will stick with me for a long time to come. I decided it was the day to give away $10 to a stranger. While walking through the city I decided I would smile and say hello to people, and maybe the right person would present themselves. This resulted in having a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman about what he felt were the keys to a happy life: a good attitude and a good night’s sleep. I also said hello to a couple from Florida and offered to take a photo of them in front of the Opera House. They said they thought Sydney was the most beautiful city in the world and the people were “just super dooper friendly”. No arguments here.

Continuing my walk I noticed a homeless man sitting on the footpath, holding a sign simply saying “Please help me”. His head was bent so slow it was almost touching the ground as a constant stream of people rushed by, not a single one acknowledging he was there. I hesitated. Would he accept food rather than money? What could I do to make him feel validated and respected? What could I say to him to find common ground, and not sound condescending? As I approached it was clear it had been a long time since anyone had taken the time to look him in the eye and say hello, and he was beyond grateful when I did.

It turned out I needn’t have worried about what to say, simply demonstrating I was open to conversation was enough. He told me his story from before he lived on the streets – he had lost his job and then been kicked out by his wife. He did not blame his boss or his wife, because he took the job and the marriage for granted and this was the consequence. After I had bought him a sandwich, coffee and newspaper (for around $10) he then told me his terrifying reality – he had to sleep during the day and stay awake during the night for fear of being set on fire, as had already happened to him three times. So it was not possible for him to get a good night’s sleep, but he certainly had an astoundingly positive attitude. He was determined to get his life back, he was saving little by little and told me with a smile, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ I get off the streets, it’s ‘when’.”

Gratitude is the first lesson: to never take for granted when our loved ones are healthy and well, when we live in a place that is safe and beautiful, when we have a job, a home and people that love and support us even when we make mistakes. But beyond this, the second lesson is choice: we cannot stop things falling apart, and most of the time we cannot even stop ourselves fearing that things might fall apart in the future. But we can choose to feel the fear, and keep smiling anyway.

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Living Above the Line

Days 42-45: When I was eleven years old I was lucky enough to take three months off school to travel around the world. I vividly recall my mother telling me, “Travelling will teach you far more about life than school ever could” – perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever recieved. Highlights included a visit Disneyland in California, seeing our family castle in Scotland and swimming with dolphins in Hawaii. But the place that had the most lasting impact was Zimbabwe, which brought on the biggest sense of culture shock I have ever felt. It was overflowing with spectacular scenery and wildlife. It was also the first time I had experienced a third-world country, seen slums the size of cities, people sleeping in the gutter and tiny children with no legs.

Upon returning home I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude at having clean water running from our taps, a comfortable place to sleep that was free of bed bugs, and a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetables to consume. I felt incredibly lucky to have been born in Australia, where I did not have to deal with the hardships of poverty and homelessness. It was not until later that I understood that these issues are not confined to one single country or even one continent – poverty does not discriminate. There are 1.4 billion people all over the world living beneath the poverty line, both in third-world countries and (literally) on our doorstep.

But as always it is not all bad news and there are things we can individually do to bring about positive change. This is Live Below the Line week, and over six thousand Australians are taking up the challenge to live on $2 a day in order to raise money and increase awareness of extreme poverty. I thought long and hard about joining this project, but eventually decided that considering how crazy I get when I’m deprived of food, sending a hungry, grumpy and jittery Cat out into the world wouldn’t really be a kindness to anyone. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to make this choice when so many have it forced upon them. So instead my kindness is to donate money to my friend Renee Carr who is not only participating in the challenge but also helped get the campaign up and running.

And it certainly seems to be a great success so far. Yesterday I overheard some handymen talking about how hungry they were on the challenge. I decided to put a bunch of coins in a nearby vending machine and then told them to go and check it as I thought it might be broken. I was intending to leave before they found the money but they were too quick and one of them very kindly called to me to say it was working and I had left money in it. I told him it was a bonus for being brave enough to Live Below the Line. He seemed very pleasantly surprised about that. I have also given money to every homeless person I have encountered, and am helping to organise a group of people to get together and give food to homeless one day soon.

Whether or not you are able to participate or donate to this cause, its a good week to realise how lucky we are to have homes, clean water, healthy bodies, an abundance of food and all the other amazing things that come with a life above the line. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could pull those 1.4 billion people up here in our lifetime too?