Today as I walked back to my hostel after lunch in the pouring rain, shivering with just a little summer dress on, a young Cambodian girl no older than perhaps 12-years-old called out to me from her bicycle, “Hey sister!” I turned around to see her outstretched arm offering a purple poncho. I barely had time to thank her before she cycled off, asking for absolutely nothing in return.
The altruism exhibited by strangers that I’ve encountered while traveling is something that touches me deeply each and every time. And while I have had many of these beautiful encounters while traveling, the truth is we don’t have to venture thousands of miles away from home to appreciate the beauty in others. But, I will be the first to admit that this is not something that I truly realized until relatively recently.
Personally, I believe that we often do not see the kindness in strangers as often at home than as when we travel because when we travel we are wrapped up in a fantasy land. In this fantasy we view foreign land as a mysterious utopia. And although I am an advocate for budget travel and that it is possible to travel cheaply, I do also realize that travel is a privilege; one that I am lucky to have and one that I know not every paycheck can support.
However, appreciating the kindness in strangers is something that can be done from absolutely anywhere. It as simple as noticing a blue sky on a sunny day, except quite often it is not the blue sky that we notice, nor the sunny day. Unfortunately, it is often the bumper-to-bumper traffic causing us to be just a few minutes late or the barista spelling our name slightly wrong, that draws our attention. We tend to focus on the negatives, the what-could-go-wrongs, and the areas for improvement, instead of focusing on the greatness in the here and the now. I believe that is something that can be changed by lending our attention to the little things. Perhaps the selfless gesture from the Cambodian girl can serve as a reminder that no matter how messed up the world seems it is today, that there is still beauty out there; that people are inherently good; and that sometimes the simplest of gestures are the ones that truly mean the most.
The simple gestures, like a soft smile from a stranger at a coffee shop, a genuine how are you from a colleague at work, a break in the rain after a long storm, the supermarket finally restocking your favorite ice cream flavor, cuddles with your dog after a tough day, or your favorite song coming on the radio during rush hour traffic- those are the moments that mean the most; those are the moments that add richness to our lives.
I share these thoughts in honor of the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, because I believe that if we focus more on the beauty in the littlest of things, we would realize that there is so much to be grateful for and so much to smile about in each day. And I do not say this to downplay the pain that we can feel or the suffering that mental illness causes. I realize that there are and will always be hard days too; the days when all roads are relentless uphills and not even the stars at night appear to shine. It is okay to have those days; to feel pain, weakness, confusion, or perhaps to feel nothing at all. Mental health is not unidirectional, there are highs and lows and we must acknowledge the lowest valleys in order to climb the highest mountains. I think that Brian Jacques captures this idea quite eloquently in his quote about grief:
“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us”
And although this quote is about grief, I believe the bolded portion holds true to mental health in general: we need the good and the bad to live. Often times, the sunlight that revives us comes from others. It can come from the simple gestures from kind strangers as well as the love and support from our family and friends. We can be that sunlight for others as well; for both our family and friends and for strangers. That girl today was my sunlight in the pouring rain and she didn’t even know it.
If you are in a position shaded from the sun, if you are hurting in any way, please reach out. No matter how dark the night seems, how desolate the path appears, or how lonely the room feels, I promise you that there are more people than you can count who want to be your sunlight.
Tears are not a symptom of vulnerability, fear is not something to be ashamed of, and asking for help when we need it is never a sign of weakness; in fact, in times of need it is the strongest thing that we can do.
My ears are always open if you need to talk: theLOdownonhealthy@gmail.com
USA National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
List of Crisis Hotlines by Country: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines