I volunteer outside the box. Every week I meet one-on-one for coffee at cafes with different individuals who share our public spaces yet who live in an invisible social ghetto of mental illness or homelessness. Over the years it's taught me a lesson I was incapable of learning before: how to sit still with another person for more than five minutes at a time.
One evening 20-some years ago my stepdaughter, then about 4 years old, burst into tears and started wailing the name of a friend who had moved to Oregon when she was two. My husband might have tried to soothe her by saying the move happened long ago and reminding her of friends who lived nearby. He might have diverted her attention to their happy plans for the next morning. It’s the kind of thing I’d have done.
Instead (as I got up to make her a distracting cup of cocoa), Bob simply said to his daughter, "You miss Duffy, don't you." He put words to her sense of loss and stayed close as she wept. In a minute or two she stopped crying and started talking about the stuffed bear she was holding. I marveled at his wisdom.
Most of my life I've been a doer and a fixer, impatient to foster progress and solve problems. But as Anwar Sadat is said to have remarked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "The West Bank is not a problem. The West Bank is a condition. If it were a problem, it could be solved."
I needed to learn that some things in life are conditions that my best efforts can't change. In fact, my efforts have sometimes made a mess. Sometimes the only thing to do is sit down and shut up.
Sometimes it's the best thing to do. When I can be quietly present over coffee with Gerald and can receive without anxiety the occasional paranoid notion, when I can listen to Alfred’s sorrows without racking my brains about how his hopeless situation might possibly be fixed short of moving him into the guest room, I give the other guy (and myself, too) a space in which a welcoming and respectful attention can be felt.
Over the course of many coffee conversations, regardless of my intentions, this may lead to progress of a sort I couldn't have predicted. Or it may not lead anywhere in particular. Either way, life has had room to happen.
After three years of coffee meetings with Alfred he's become a bit more sociable and communicative. Not long ago, despite his PTSD and panic disorder he stood in front of an audience at a relative's memorial service to make a speech — an unthinkable public gesture when I first met him.
Alfred also used to carry two heavy satchels filled with his possessions along with him everywhere even though he has an apartment of his own where he can keep his stuff. Now he's down to carrying one. Maybe the regular companionship of someone outside the role of caregiver or fellow client helps him access an inner selfhood long-buried under the "mentally ill" label. Maybe now he doesn’t need to carry so much of his sense of self around in bags.
I’ve changed, too, without quite realizing it. Besides being more aware of the astonishing variety of persons in my world, I feel more patient with friends, family, colleagues, bad drivers — even the daily onslaught of bad news.
A different version of this blog once appeared as a post at FreestyleVolunteer.