I can’t understand the cruelty of humanity. And I know it still goes on.
The psychology of people intrigues me. We all view the world differently, some seeing opportunities and some seeing tragedy, even when experiencing the same event. Does the way we see the world shape our future lives? Do we have a choice as to how we see the world, or is it pre-determined? Is it based on our genetics, our experiences or something else?
Meet my friend, Joanie (not her real name). Although I’ve never met her personally, I feel I know her well after talking with her dozens of times on the phone. Four years ago, I asked my employee at the time to go to a conference I wanted to attend, take notes and report back to me. Scheduling did not allow me to be there.
Ben took detailed notes, told me about the presenters and his biggest takeaways. Interestingly, I could tell he was more intrigued by someone he met than he was by the event itself.
It was the warm, friendly lady sitting next to him that made the conference memorable. She was an outgoing, motherly woman, born in Africa, with a thick accent causing her words to spill out in bunches. She wanted to continue to connect with Ben following the conference, and he wanted me to have the opportunity to talk with her, too.
Why I wondered, did this woman make such a powerful impression on Ben? Being from a part of Canada with a mostly white, Anglo-Saxon population, Ben had not met many people from other races.
“She’s so nice,” Ben had told me, “and she wants to get to know you. She’s warm and friendly, and I’d like to help her if I can.”
It turned out she didn’t have much income and was selling a vitamin supplement to try to make ends meet.
I’ve talked with Joanie many times since Ben introduced us, but it’s now been nearly a year since our last conversation. Her husband died in the early years of their marriage and since then, she’s suffered a lot of pain and sickness. I had begun to wonder if she had died. A quick, ten-second call from her three days ago had revealed she’s still with us. “Call me when you can,” she’d said.
I’ve now been updated on Joanie’s life after calling her back twenty minutes ago. When I asked how she was doing, she began to sob. Through her tears, I learned there’d been a death, and she was not able to cope with it. Her beautiful, handsome, tall, 36-year-old son, Andrew had died, she told me. Working as a high-level government executive in Toronto, he frequently traveled to Montreal and Ottawa, so she often saw him only twice a month. It was an accident she told me.
When I asked her about the accident, she said she couldn’t talk about it. She was too broken up. When did he die, I asked. September she said. I immediately realized that even though he’d died six months ago, she was reliving his death every day.
To help her relax a little, I asked more questions about her life. I learned about her daughter in France who is working on her Ph.D. Joanie traveled to France last year to visit her, and she was grateful to spend quality time with her.
I have no money; Joanie told me. My son had a will and someone broke into his apartment and stole it. I just got back from the bank. They can’t help me. I have no money and no one to help me. Can you help me, Bruce?
Andrew was born in Canada, and then our family had to go back to Africa because of an envoy. A few years later, the United Nations made a contract with Canada, and we were allowed to move back permanently. That was the late 80’s.
I asked a few more questions about their family’s move to Canada, and then she abruptly stopped me, saying she was too upset about Andrew to talk about the history of Canada. She cried a little more and then said she had to go.
It was clear that Andrew had been helping her financially and with that source of income wiped out, Joanie had no financial lifeline. I knew she didn’t have many friends or connections.
After getting off the phone, my thoughts of black history month conjured up some questions in my mind. Is her life the way it is because of her people’s past? They were prosecuted and suffered so much; it makes me cringe. I can’t understand the cruelty of humanity. And I know it still goes on.
Other questions come into my mind. How was she able to raise two children alone as a single mother, and yet make sure they completed higher education, and why was Joanie left with so little herself?
Her last words on the phone still echo in my mind. “Please pray for me, Bruce, pray for me.” I assured Joanie I’d do everything possible to help her and that I’d definitely pray for her.
Photo: Flickr/ Daniel Foster