Leona O'Neill: A kind gesture could make a world of difference to a person on the streets

We need to teach our children that a compassionate approach towards the homeless is crucial, whether in taking action to deal with basic needs, or encouraging motivation and independence to help them re-build their lives, writes Leona O’Neill

Leona O'Neill
Leona O'Neill

In this day and age, where those peddling hostility and hate seem to have the biggest voice, it’s hard to know how we can give our kids enough armour to get through what can be a tough life but keep their hearts from being hard and uncaring?

The great Dalai Lama once said: "Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Kids learn by example and we, as parents, are their greatest teachers.

My son and myself were in town at the weekend. As we were waiting in a queue at the ATM there was a drunk man slumped against the wall beside us. His face was very badly busted up and he looked quite alarming. I had seen him a few times around town, clearly with more than a few challenges. I saw that my boy was a little apprehensive.

The man asked a number of people in the queue if they had any change. Some flat-out ignored him, some looked away and pretended he wasn’t there. I reached into my pocket and gave him whatever change was there and said I hoped he could get something nice to eat and that his face looked very sore. He smiled and said my boy reminded him of his son. He asked him about school, about football. The man wasn’t a fan of Manchester United. The conversation ran on until I was finished at the bank. We told him to take care of himself.

I doubt the guy will even remember talking to us, but my son will remember him. He will remember that he was a fellow human being and that we didn’t turn away or ignore him. He will remember that we shared a few words and a laugh with him – and reminded the man that he was a father, that he had a son.

I remember when I was a little girl I fell spectacularly off my bike one summer evening, which meant my dad sitting in A&E with me for hours. It was the early 80s. I recall a man bursting through the hospital doors with a policeman on either side of him. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, had long straggly hair, a beard and had slash marks all over his face, arms and body. He was shouting, kicking, bleeding and screaming maniacally. I asked my father if he was Jesus Christ because he looked like the picture on the wall in my grandmother’s house of the crucifixio..

The police got the man calmed and sat him in the only free seats, which happened to be directly in front of us. Blood dripped from the pieces of his ripped shirt that had been tied around his wrists where he had slashed them.

He smiled sadly at me and my dad – the white of his teeth and eyes shining out from his bloodstained face. I remember burying my head in my father’s jacket, absolutely terrified.

I heard the man ask my father what my name was, and what age I was, as I peered out from behind his arm.

My dad spoke to the blood-soaked man in his normal, gentle voice. I saw he was not afraid. My dad asked the man if he wanted a cup of tea from the vending machine and as we walked away from him down the corridor he said that I needn’t be afraid, that the man was just lashing out because he was scared. He said that sometimes a kind word or a kind gesture could make a world of difference to a person who is suffering. It can make them think the world isn’t full of horrible people, that the human spirit can be great, that there is light in life.

My dad and I brought the man back a Mars Bar and a cup of tea. But by his reaction you’d be forgiven for thinking we handed him the FA Cup. They sat and chatted about football for a while, laughing and joking, until he was called to be seen. He shook my dad’s hand as he left and thanked him for the tea. I’ll never forget that.

Such is the sad state of our society that kindness is fast becoming obsolete. People are growing angrier, more bitter and selfish with less time to stop and be kind to their fellow earth dwellers or offer a word of kindness online. Social media has only fuelled divisions and put hatred of each other front and centre. But sometimes we need to stop and be reminded of the fragility of the human spirit and how unkind words and actions can crush a person's soul.

It's not that hard to be kind, to empathise, to put yourself in another’s shoes for one minute and imagine how they see the world. And it’s probably the best lesson to teach our kids.