Saturday, March 15, 2008

Reaching out to help

Yesterday, coming back from a meeting, I took the elevator up to my office on the sixth floor at the shelter where I work. A client, "James" got on at the second floor.

"James" has been a client at the shelter for a couple of years. In his late 50's, he suffers from serious bouts of depression. Sometimes cantankerous, he is always pleasant when we meet -- mostly because on those days when he wants to be left alone, he avoids contact with people by leaving the building right after breakfast and staying out for the day.

Yesterday, as we rode the elevator together, he commented that he hadn't seen me for a couple of weeks. "I was ill," I told him.

"Oh," he asked. "Everything okay?"

"Absolutely," I replied.

As the elevator stopped on his floor he turned back to me and said, "If there's anything I can do for you, let me know," he said. The elevator doors closed on his smile.

Sometimes, on weekends, I will take Ellie, my golden retriever, to the shelter and James will take her for a walk along the river pathway. He likes to tell me he's training her to behave on leash, and I like to pretend she's better behaved onleash after her walks with James. During the week, whenever I pass him on the second floor (which is the day area), he always asks, "Where's my dog?"

I always reply, "At home, sleeping on her bed."

Ellie has become for him, his connection to the life he lost sometime ago when an addiction, and eventually depression, took him down.

James doesn't like living at the shelter, but it's the life he's grown accustomed to. The life he's familiar with now. The shelter is a place where he feels safe.

But he misses the dog he used to own. He misses the walks. The companionship. The unconditional love of his best friend. Those occassional walks with Ellie mean a lot to him. They bring him joy and they help him feel 'normal', part of regular society as he likes to call it.

As I drove home last night to prepare dinner for two girlfriend's who were coming over, I thought about James' comment about offering to help me if he could.

He meant it.

A man with so little, offering to do what he could to help me.

That is generosity of spirit. It is gallantry. It is humbling.

I am blessed in all I have. Blessed with love, with joy, with a life I live fearlessly.

James doesn't have a lot to give and yet, he offered to help.

Everyday someone asks me, "Isn't it depressing working in that place?"

"No," I reply. "It's inspiring. Everyday, people get up and try again. No matter how bad their lives are, the messes they're in, they take another step. It may not always be a step in the right direction, but they try, again and again. For me, it is a testament of the power of the human spirit to survive. And eventually, to thrive."

James may never have a dog of his own again. But, in connecting to Ellie, he has connected to something that has great meaning for him. And in that meaning, he may find his path out of homelessness.

And in the interim, he will reach out to others to offer help whenever he can.

That's inspiring.

The question is: Are you willing to reach out even when you're feeling low?

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