People are Fragile Beings

I have just read Kirk Smith’s letter to the editor of this newspaper about his brother Brian’s “incessant” walking journey up and down the Bruce Peninsula along the shoulders of Highway 6. I don’t believe I have ever read anything more touching, heartfelt, and beautifully written. With family members like Kirk and his mother Marion, whose love for her homeless son shines so clearly through Kirk’s letter, Brian is truly blessed.

That may be a strange thing to say about a man who has struggled with a terrible burden of grief for 30 years. He has somehow managed to cope in his way by withdrawing into homeless solitude, and by pacing up and down the peninsula day after day, month after month, for years, through all kinds of weather.

I don’t know where else and how far Brian’s lonely wanderings took him after, as Kirk wrote in his letter, “a series of traumas stomped on the great promise of his young life.” I know I first saw him seven or eight years ago as I drove back and forth from Lion’s Head to a construction job in the Tobermory area.

I always hurried by, looked, and wondered about the man of indeterminate age, with the unkempt beard and long, blonde hair walking with a steady, relentless gait along the side of the highway. What a story he must be, I thought for a few moments on those occasions. But I confess I never stopped to inquire if he was alright, if he needed a ride, or maybe just a bit of human companionship for a few miles. I feel bad about that now, especially after reading Kirk’s letter to the editor, and his thanks on behalf of the family to the many other people from Sauble Beach to Tobermory who have taken some time over the years to show more concern for Brian and his well-being.

Especially, one can’t help but wonder, where has he spent the often harsh winters of “The Bruce” where when storms blow in off Lake Huron or Georgian Bay the highway is closed and impassable for snow plows, let alone a homeless man on foot who may or may not have had something to eat for heaven knows how long.

Somehow, Brian has survived, but for how long can that go on? Kirk said his family recently found him after a 30-year separation, thanks to tips from the OPP and “people in caring communities” he walks through on his so far endless journey. Apparently, that’s the way he must have it, until he himself chooses another way, helped no doubt by the love of his family and the gentle, non-judgemental kindness of people along the way. They too are becoming like family, and also helping “to patch some of the cracks in the wreckage of his heart,” Kirk said, with a wonderful choice of a few words from the heart that speak volumes about his love and his mother’s love for Brian.

I was most touched by Kirk’s heartfelt expression of Brian’s continuing value as a human being in the world of his expanding extended family: “Brian’s family is larger every day. He laughs more. He stands tall as an enabler of good acts in this world.” (my italics)

“We are proud of him.”

Every policy-making politician of every stripe (some more than others), every bureaucrat in every level of government involved in the development and implementation of social programs, especially those aimed at mental health issues or otherwise designed to help people through times of trouble, every voter at election time; indeed, everybody should take some time to stop and reach out to people in need of their family’s help. And by that I mean the larger family of the society and the world in which we all live. Human beings are our most valuable resource. We’re all different, born into the innocence and wonder of childhood, bringing special gifts to our families and the world, talents that are valued and, taken together as a whole, must surely make the world a better place to live.

But people are also fragile beings. We are, well, human after all. And life, being what it is, will throw us curves – or worse, a lot worse. We all have our limits, and there’s only so much we can take before our ability to cope is tested to the breaking point and beyond. Many of our soldiers, for example, like their predecessors in wars and peacekeeping duties gone by, are coming back from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress. They are to one degree or another broken men and women who need and deserve all the help and support we and our government can give them, for our sake as well as theirs.

There are others among us, like Brian, broken by a barrage of circumstances few if any of us could cope with. Timely help in the form of counselling or whatever skilled services may be useful to help such people weather their storms and come back to a safe refuge of mental stability and renewal may not have been readily available 30 years ago. It’s questionable if it’s as readily available as it should be even now, given the cost-cutting mentality of government in recent years, and likely in the years to come. But I can’t help but wonder, if we can spend $50 billion-plus on an “action plan” to stimulate the economy, surely we can spend a tiny fraction of that on more or better social programs that protect and help our most valuable resource. Otherwise, what a terrible waste of energy and talent, we can hardly imagine.

So, yes, Brian teaches us a lot, about the fundamentally caring nature, I believe, of the vast majority of people, about the remarkable strength and yet tragic fragility of human beings, and their continuing value. But most of all perhaps, he makes us think, about how we can best help people like him be where they truly want to be. That’s for Brian to tell us when he’s ready. But I think it’s fair to say, it’s not wasting away in a drug-induced fog in a mental institution, nor is it homeless and forgotten.

Meanwhile, Brian is blessed because he has been found by members of his immediate family and been given a clear message of their unconditional love. He is also blessed because he has met many caring people on the Bruce Peninsula who have become members of his virtual extended family. And he’s blessed too because his story is being told and that caring family will be that much bigger as a result.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

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