Heading home in the cold last night, walking from the office to the light rail station, I crossed the square. As I walked toward the train platform, I passed a tall man carrying a flower-print duffel bag, wearing an expression of fatigue and sadness. I kept walking. I noticed the woman hurrying to catch up with him, a moment later. Then she started screaming. A plaintive wail, “no!”. “No! No no no!” She wailed. She screamed it at him, pulling what looked like a sleeping bag around her shoulders. She began to run after him, shrieking, wailing, crying into the night, and to all the passers-by “no!!!”. It was not anger that made her voice so distinctive and alarming, it was the pure raw grief and hurt and fear – real panic, the sort of thing one expects to hear in the midst of warfare, or violence. She sounded desperate, terrified, and bereft. The wails continued as she ran after the man. He walked on calmly without looking back. I turned and watched the scene move away from me, feeling helpless. There was no obvious action to take. The woman was blind to everyone and everything around her, except that man walking away. The only sign he was aware of her at all was that they had been sitting together, when I saw them from a distance, and also… a flower-print duffel bag is an odd thing for a man his age to be carrying, generally. Her screaming haunted my sleep. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how her story ends. I feel ashamed that I didn’t do more, but don’t know what I could have done under the circumstances. I feel puzzled by the seeming lack of awareness of everyone around, that evening… I saw no heads turn but my own.  Bystanders, each and all of us. What a shitty situation for a woman screaming “no”, alone in the night. I’d like to have been more helpful. It is still on my mind this morning.

I sip my coffee and think about how this experience is so telling of who I am now, where I am in life as a human being. I spend a few minutes noticing that I actually do care, even about the isolated distress of a stranger I passed in the night. I wasn’t always this person. I sip my coffee, and think about other times, when I was the one screaming and afraid, without help, alone in the darkness… I think about people who might have heard me, who may have wanted to do… something, but… what? I feel grateful that my life is calm and quiet these days. I take a moment to appreciate having survived some terrible dark nights. I make room to forgive the passing strangers who did not help, because they did not know how. That’s a step forward, for me. I feel the weight of a little more baggage drop to the floor. It hits with an imagined thud, and the realization that I can also forgive myself for being unable to figure out what to do last night, to help a stranger in distress.

It's okay to put some of that down, for now.

It’s okay to put some of that down, for now.

I take one more moment to wish a stranger well, after-the-fact, and to hope she found some peace, somehow, and some comfort. I hope she found a moment she could be okay in. “Not my circus, not my monkeys…” Well, sure… but… also… we’re all human beings. Each having our own experience. Separating myself, generally, from drama doesn’t have to also make me a dick to people, or insensitive, or callous, or cruel. Compassion, kindness, consideration are all still within reach, still important to cultivate, still matter. I’m no super hero – I barely adult adequately well to support my own life, some of the time – but I can still care, and still be kind, and still open my heart to listen deeply to another. Those still matter, even if I can’t save the world. Even if I can’t stop all of the screaming, everywhere.

Today is a good day to be awake, aware, and considerate. It’s a good place to begin. It could be enough to change the world… with some practice.