A few weeks ago a homeless man got on the bus with a large canvas bag full of empty cans. I estimated his age to be around sixty-five because of his weathered and broken face but he could have been forty for all I know. I thought of this man as we entered this Season of Merry-Making and Spending Sprees and again last night as I watched from the comfort of my toasty living room the temperature gauge plummet to -16.
I felt very fortunate to be inside and out of the cold and cutting wind. I felt especially grateful to have a roof over my head and a working furnace remembering like I do every winter that not everyone can afford heating or hot water. And while you may be reading this thinking this is yet another post about gratitude and learning to count our blessings (it is) it is actually about what this homeless man did on the bus and how that drew my attention to another problem.
The man dragged his canvas bag along the bus floor and sat across from me. He then proceeded to answer his cellphone (a cellphone that did not ring or beep) and went on to have a lengthy conversation with his mother. The conversation went something like this:
‘Yes, You must come visit. I have a nice place down by the river. A little drafty but I have great views. Just yesterday I watched an eagle take a salmon out of the water. Yes. I’m telling you it’s a great place. Yes. It’s mine.’
He went on to tell her he had a dentist appointment later that day. Yes. He needed extensive dental work but he was finally going to get ‘fixed up’. He told her he was ‘living the life’ but it would be great if she came to visit. He hadn’t seen her in – what was it – oh yes, fifteen years. He missed her. He missed his brother. He hadn’t spent a Christmas with them (his family) in ages (they were in Halifax). He was still holding a conversation on a dead phone when I got off but this scene brought home to me the problem we face as a society – as a species- with loneliness.
I read somewhere that when asked Vancouverites said that what bothered them most was not the high cost of living or drugs in the street but the fact that they felt lonely and unconnected. When I worked at a clinic I would sit and listen to elderly people tell me how much they missed talking. Sometimes I would wonder if there is something wrong with me because I love listening to people recount his or her story. I have heard the most incredible WWII stories from people who were in the very thick of it. I even got to talk to a man who was a pilot during WWI. I value that alone more than gold. I get it that we all lead busy lives. I get it that we all have our share of burdens and responsibilities but during this season of giving perhaps the biggest gift we can give is an ear and an hour or two with someone who has no one left to talk to.