3 things I learned about ‘failure’ from a stranger (true story)

I’ll never forget those eyes. The look of fear and desperation was profound. He was newly homeless, gazing desperately at any one who walked past – for a little bit of change – anything – to help.

I had nothing to give. The symptom of a cashless society.

On every street corner in central Sydney, there were men sitting on corners – sometimes right in the middle of the pedestrian traffic – with cups or hats upturned. Some with signs explaining piece of their story, some with nothing. Staring downwards. You’ve seen them too. Did you feel guilty walking past?

This was Day 2 of learning about social challenges on the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s national leadership program – a 59 day course delivered over 17 months.

We watched videos on youth homelessness, met with social service providers, and talked with people sleeping rough and doing it tough under rental stress and other pressures.

This is what I learned about people through this experience:

Lack of S.E.S. leads to homelessness: Support, Emotions, and Self-esteem.

1. Support. Many of the young people were abandoned. One youth told how one afternoon his mother never came back. She left her 14 year old and 8 year old sons alone. That’s it. Abandoned. They had no one, and nowhere to go. They learned to survive on the streets, like stray cats.

2. Emotions. Many people experience true traumas and horrors that no one should ever experience: abuse, violence, drugs. Some of these experiences are so traumatic, that turning to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain is the only thing that seems to work in stopping the replay of the horror show in their mind’s eye. Learning to process emotions, to feel things fully, is something we all struggle to learn properly and could do better at it. And that is without a deep dark history to escape from. It takes a lot of nurture and support to be able to feel those horrors fully, and let them go. To then focus on the present and the future, rather than be ruled by the past.

3. Self-Esteem. Where does this come from? How do you create it when you’ve been abandoned and have no one who takes responsibility for you, no one who seems to care? Self-esteem is hard to nurture on your own, and it takes trust in others to believe any show of concern. It can be a big chasm of faith to leap.

So what then of ‘failure’?

I felt like a failure when I walked past all those homeless people, tucked up on street corners. What was I doing to alleviate their suffering? How could I have so much in my life and they have nothing?

Failure Lesson #1. The real failure would be to take this experience and do nothing with it.

Can I save homeless people?

No. I sincerely believe that every individual must ultimately save themselves. And at the same time, living a life with compassion – where you feel empathy and have a desire and a way to help – can help uplift others. Sharing what I learn with my readers, with my clients, helps to spread compassion and upliftment in the world. Sharing what I earn with charities like the Smith Family helps leverage good works.

Failure Lesson #2. Is it ‘failure’ to be homeless? Judging from my standpoint, homeless is not what I want for me, or for others. It looks rough, tough, and desperate. Therein lies a clue: JUDGING FROM MY STANDPOINT. We cannot measure any one else’s life by our own standards; we can only help people to feel like a success, on their own terms, regardless of their accommodation status. Bringing failure into the picture is counter-productive.

Failure Lesson #3. I never want to feel like a failure again, in any circumstance. Finding a way to respond to difficulty with love, to stress, and finding a way to feel compassion, especially for my self, is true success. Next time I go to Sydney, I will be walking around with a pocketful of change. It’s not the money that counts; it’s the witnessing and acknowledgment of another human being struggling to find their path, and offering them kindness.

I want to live a life radiating love and compassion for all, making a difference with my own talents and skills, being a beacon of light. That’s what I’ve signed up for. How about you?

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