When I was still very little, my mother told me not to look at the homeless people on the streets. She never told me exactly why. But I learned from a young age that I should look away. Pretend that they were not there.
That’s how society acts. My mom didn’t teach me that because she was cruel. She taught me that because her mother had taught her. I bet you, too, were told to not look at the suffering. Not to stare at disabled people. Not to look at the poor. To turn your head and shut your eyes.
As I grew up, I maintained that old habit of looking away, until I was old enough to ask myself why. And because couldn’t find a real answer, I decided to stop doing that.
Do you know what happened? I was met with smiles. Yes, the homeless people smiled at me when they noticed I was looking. Even when I didn’t give them a single coin. They smiled because I had seen them. Recognized their existence. In a world that was constantly pretending they were invisible, that was perhaps more valuable than money.
Of course, I’m not saying all of them smiled at me. If they frowned or seemed upset, I’d, of course, look away. But it was the smiles that made it into my memory.
That little experience gave me a lot to think about. I started asking myself in what other situations I was looking away. Literally or metaphorically. Sometimes, we don’t need to move our heads in order to “look away”. We just need to keep scrolling. Or to not to do anything. Not to kneel down to get that pen that fell from our classmate’s desk. Not to stand up when we see an elderly who couldn’t sit on the bus.
As a mental health advocate, I know that a big part of the problem is our habit of looking away from the suffering. Most mental illnesses, though deemed “invisible”, have noticeable signs. If you know how to look, you can spot a depressed person by the way they talk. You can notice it when someone’s struggling with anxiety by their body language. If you choose to look, you will see.
People die because we continue to look away. Every year, 44,965 Americans die by suicide. All those people had their suffering ignored or at least underestimated. Could a closer look have saved them?
We are a couple of weeks into January. By this time, most people will have given up on their New Year resolutions. But I’d like to invite you to make a new one by now.
Let’s make 2018 the year we stop looking away.
If your coworker seems to be down lately, try asking if they’re ok. If a classmate is too nervous while presenting in front of the class, try to help them out. Do not look away. Do not pretend not to notice.
We at #icare are Kindness Warriors. Refusing to look away is our special power. Today, I want to invite you to join us. Open your eyes; see others. You will find there are wonderful people out there waiting to be seen.
Happy New Year!