The sky was already darkening, and my stomach rumbled as I walked past the man sitting on the corner of the street. I barely glanced at him as I hurried home, looking forward to cuddling up in my bedroom with a book, a cup of tea and a warm bowl of soup – after a long day’s work, I deserved it. There wasn’t room for anything else in my mind.
Except suddenly there was. There was an urge, one that washed over my whole body and suddenly, I wasn’t walking anymore. I stopped in the middle of the footpath.
I turned around. He was still sitting there, his head between his knees, the scrawled handwriting on cardboard begging for help. I stuffed my hand into my pocket, felt my wallet press against my fingers. I don’t have anything to spare. I need to eat, too.
Except I did. There is always something to spare.
I hardly knew what I was doing anymore. I never gave money to homeless people – their world was so distant, so different from mine, I’d never even wondered before if we belonged to the same species. Their silhouettes melted into the wall as busy people strutted past every day. I never stopped to look. What was there to see?
But suddenly there I was, tapping this stranger on the shoulder and pressing a two-dollar coin into his hand. His eyelids were heavy as he looked up to thank me. I was shocked at the words that sprung from my lips.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Are you sure?”
He yawned, shoved the coin into his pocket, and was silent for a moment.
“To be honest, not really.”
“Do you want to talk?” What the hell was I saying? I couldn’t be a counsellor for a stranger on the street. “You don’t have to, of course. Sometimes you don’t feel like talking, and I understand that. But if you want me to, I can always sit here for a while.” But I’m hungry, and can’t wait to get home. “I’m not in a hurry,” I added.
His nod compelled me to sit. I dropped my backpack full of library books on the cold cobblestones and watched him with a knot in my stomach. But what if he’s a drug addict? What if he’s a criminal? What if he’s a murderer?
What if he’s just like me?
Then he began to talk. He told me of his life now, and of his life before. He’d lived in Canada, and he had an older brother who was his role model; he never enjoyed school, but he liked Vice and electronica. He didn’t like Friday nights, because drunkards would find him and beat him up. But he loved our little city anyway – “I’ve been here three years,” he said, “and after everything, I still can’t leave.”
A man in a suit stopped in front of us, and searched through his wallet for loose change. “Dammit,” he said. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He disappeared.
“He won’t be back,” said my new friend matter-of-factly. He was right.
“Do many people stop and give you anything?” I asked.
“Yeah, there’s a few. But most of them just read the sign and keep walking.”
He yawned again and shifted position. “You have no idea how much I want a shower and a nice bed right now.”
The subject turned to me, and he grinned when I mentioned living in Switzerland. “There are so many places I’d like to visit,” he said, “but Switzerland is at the top of that list. That’s where the seat of the UN is, right?” I wasn’t sure, but I nodded anyway, remembering the large building and its driveway lined with flags. Geneva definitely has a strong international presence.
So we began to talk about international relations. My new friend shook his head, a half-smile on his lips.
“Man, this world is complicated. I just don’t get it. Why can’t people just make peace?”
I didn’t know what to answer to that. I’d often wondered the same thing.
The town disappeared into a blanket of darkness, and pinpricks of light appeared both in the sky and on the neons signs around us. I didn’t know what time it was. It didn’t matter. All that existed was now.
When at last I stood up and slung my backpack over my shoulder, a mixture of emotions whirled inside me. There was sorrow: how could we – how could I – let fellow humans live in such conditions, and not even glance at them? There was humility: I had taken so much for granted. Most of all, there was amazement.
I stared up at the sparkling sky and felt a wave of wonder wash over me. This was not a coincidence. I hadn’t stopped on my own, and somebody had made me sit down on the cobblestones. Some God had made me do this. I was sure of it.
But the more I thought about it, the more that certainty faded away. I couldn’t think which God it was – fierce Artemis, bright-shining Apollon, Poseidon the earth-shaker? Their faces swam in front of my eyes, and still I couldn’t guess… Until a new one appeared. Chubby cheeks with dimples, a toothy grin, eyes like sapphires, she seemed to giggle at me; next to her, another, softer smile shone in a smooth face framed by mousy hair. My heart jolted into my throat.
These were not Gods. These were humans like me. But without any doubt, it was them who inspired me to throw away my prejudice and reach out to a fellow human being that night.
It struck me that two years ago, I wouldn’t have stopped. I would’ve walked right past, gone home and contentedly curled up with my book and my bowl of soup. But light is strange like that: when a star goes out, the others only burn brighter. It has been almost two years since a cold darkness had extinguished my stars, my beloved stars which radiated so much kindness and joy. I had sworn to carry on their light in my heart, but only now did I realise to what extent they had inspired me.
Yes, the Gods’ hands touch many aspects of our lives. But sometimes, what happens here is of our own doing – our own will to change the world. Our own will to transform grief into compassion. Our own will to shine.
It’s not always the Gods. Sometimes we’re just kind.