The other day, I was listening to an episode of This American Life called "Time To Save The World" and the theme of it is people, in different ways and on different scales, trying to make the world a better place. Some of them didn't set out to do this, they didn't made a conscious decision to repeatedly help other people. It just, it kind of happened. Or at least, that was the case with this guy called Heather.
Except Heather isn't his real name. In fact, very little is publicly known about Heather. But for over 50 years, in his own time, for free, he has been helping strangers by talking to them on his house phone. He'll talk to anyone, of any age, but the people who mainly call him are teenagers - teenagers who are scared or lonely or confused or just want a chat. Over the course of five decades, he has talked to thousands of people in some form of crisis and by giving them his time and a sympathetic ear, helped them in immeasurable ways.
To really get how incredible this story is, I highly urge you to listen to the podcast, even just Heather's story which is around 10 minutes in length. At one point in it, he sings to the girl Jessica who's interviewing him. If you do not feel a tug on your emotions when he does this, I strongly urge you to be tested by a psychologist to see if you're a sociopath.
Walking back from the library on Friday, a dry but cold January day which I could feel pinking my cheeks and refreshing my lungs with every step and breath, I was reminded of my own Heather from when I was a teenager.
It's no secret that my adolescence was rough, for big, scary reasons, and at times, I felt very lost. Not long after my 16th birthday, as I walked home from school on a half day, my brain filled with painful thoughts and a home waiting for me that I did not want to go to, I decided to run away.
To go into the whole tale of that would turn this post into an epic poem, so I'll cut down on the details. But basically, in an incredible moment of destiny and coincidence and whatever else you want to call it, I met my own Heather that day. This young woman, a perfect stranger, saved me from a dangerous situation - and in the conversation that emerged between us soon after as we sat in the McDonalds on Jervis Street, I think I saved her back too.
Because in a bizarre twist of fate, she had been contemplating taking her own life - but after I confided to her the pain I was experiencing from my own Mum's recent attempt - she felt shocked into re-thinking her plan. I made her consider the repercussions for her family, what her decision would do to them. In return, she not only convinced me to go back home but encouraged me to try and understand that my Mum loved me and had not overdosed to hurt me, but because she was in pain and needed help.
She gave me my fare home and walked me to the bus stop, making sure I got on it safely. She swore to me that she wasn't going to do anything to harm herself, that she felt our encounter happened for a reason. It was a sign, the sign she had been asking for. I felt the same about her. Our meeting didn't sort out all my problems or make me immediately more understanding about what was going on at home. But it affected me, for so many reasons.
That someone, who really didn't have to be and who didn't know me at all, was so kind to me. That what was currently happening to my family was not an exclusive hurt, we weren't the only ones going through this. That there are shadows we all hide in, masks we all wear - and in a strange way, that made me feel less alone. It made me feel like less of a freak.
I never spoke with my Heather again. Like so many kids who spoke with the Heather from the podcast I mentioned, at a time when a crunch-moment came and I really needed a saviour, this stranger was there. This person, who had no obligation to talk to me or listen to me, did. And that moment of kindness and understanding changed my course. Eight years later, it still sticks with me. I don't foresee a day when it won't.
I've thought about that woman a number of times over the years. I've told a few people the whole extraordinary tale of our encounter. When I do, I'm always reminded of how much I wish I had got her number or had some way of thanking of her now for what she did from me. I've wondered and hoped that things turned out okay for her too. And although it has been a long time since I thought about her, I have never stopped feeling grateful to her.
Listening to the story about Heather not only reminded me of my own experience, but it made me think how common kindness really is. A smile from a stranger, a door held open, a generous tip to a nice waiter, a stranger giving you the euro you're short of on the bus - it happens all the time, everyday, and it makes such a difference. Sometimes it picks you up when you really need it, sometimes it just puts a smile on your face to witness it. It's a fleeting reminder that we're an interconnected web of strings; almost invisible connections of kindness and goodness between people who had never met before and probably never will again. It's humanity at its best.
Why write about this, you might ask? After so much time, when there's no way of me finding this woman to explain to her the difference she made to me and to discover if my impression was as lasting on her? What is the point?
Because as remarkable as my experience was, or the story of Heather in the podcast, I think there are more heroes among us than we think. The everyday ones that hold us together, that make our day a little easier, who quietly carry out little acts of goodness that drop and ripple out to so many of us.
It's these people that remind me we're more connected than we think. They reaffirm my belief that people save one another and that if you're in need of hope, sometimes all you have to do is look at another human being.
As I mentioned earlier, there's this bit in the podcast when Heather sings. Because sometimes kids ring him up and they just ask him to sing a song. Maybe it soothes them, or makes them feel less alone. But I'm going to end this post with that song - and my hope that people will sing it if you only ask them.