I’m reading Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. His words regularly bring me to tears. He’s a beautiful writer and, more importantly, he’s an honest, compassionate, work-for-justice person. Stevenson details varied ways we harm one another; the awful things we abide by and do. And much of this happens within institutions.
One chapter describes the life and death of Herbert Richardson. His mother died when he was 3 years old. He was abused at the age of 7. In his teens, he struggled with drugs and alcohol. As an adult, he served in Vietnam, where he witnessed numerous friends die, and where he was seriously injured. Post-traumatic stress followed him everywhere.
When Stevenson first met Herbert, he was on death row for a crime he committed but to which the death penalty didn’t apply (and was unjustly imposed). Stevenson worked hard to right this wrong, but Herbert was denied a stay of execution. On his last day, he reflected on the preciousness of life—how in Vietnam he was prepared to die, yet how wholly different it felt right then.
He spoke about the prison staff: On the day of his execution, everyone wanted to help him. They repeatedly offered to bring him a meal or stamps or water. He sadly reflected, “More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years I was coming up.”
That statement broke my heart wide open.
Studies show that one person can make a difference. Even amid trauma, if there’s one person who’s supportive, helpful, and caring, then resilience increases. We can’t save the world, but we can be that one person for someone in need. With compassion, we can ask, “How can I help?” We can look people in the eyes. We can listen.
And perhaps first we must do this for ourselves. Listen inward, create space, and help ourselves so we can help others. This question—how can I help? —applies outward and inward. Sometimes we need to give; sometimes we need to receive.
Injustice in the world is overwhelming: there’s so much and it feels so big. Yet we can make a difference in small, doable ways. Look at the person right in front of you. Where do they hurt? Look and listen wholeheartedly. Then widen the circle. Befriend someone outside your usual group. See them anew. Open your heart. And ask: How can I help?