Paul Cockayne – 07791 970406 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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There is a lady who sells the Big Issue in Wokingham town centre. She has been in the same place every week for as long as I can remember with per stack of magazines and her plaintive cry of “Big Issue”. Sometimes, when I pass her, I stop and buy a copy. At other times, I avoid eye contact and pass by.
Why do I do this? Why, sometimes, am I sympathetic and giving, while at other times I choose to ignore her?
On the “giving” days, I feel sympathy for her. I imagine that she is homeless through no fault of her own, a victim of circumstances, perhaps abused by her partner, made redundant from her job, perhaps suffering mental health issues. Someone who needs my help.
On the “avoiding” days, I see her differently. I focus on the fact that she’s been selling the Big Issue in the same place for years. So clearly selling the magazine isn’t helping to change things for her. She’s stuck in a situation that isn’t working for her – but she isn’t seeking to change it. She needs to get off her bum and try something different, doesn’t she?
When I think about these two stories about the Big Issue Lady I realise that they could easily have fallen from the mouths of my parents.
My mother was sympathetic and understanding, and wanted to help people. She once brought home a stray cat in her shopping bag and gave it a home, and I can imagine she would have liked to do the same for the Big Issue Lady – to have popped her in her shopping bag and brought her home for a nice cup of tea and a chat.
My father, on the other hand, would have seen the Big Issue Lady as a bit of a sponger, trying to take advantage of him. He might even have seen the whole thing as a gigantic con trick and have imagined the Big Issue Lady sneaking back to a luxurious home at night, donning furs and eating caviar, laughing about the people she’d fooled that day.
We talk about “hearing voices in my head” as a symptom of mental illness but actually I think we all carry the voices of many others in our heads. Parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers and carers – all will have said things and done things when we were kids that will have made an impression on us, and that will have stayed with us in some way. We are influenced too, by TV, books and movies – there are hundreds of voices we carry around in our heads.
Most of the time, all these voices sit in the background and we are not really aware of them. But sometimes we face decisions that are difficult, problems that cause us to stop and think, and that’s when the voices can come to the fore. And sometimes the voices are saying different things, giving us conflicting messages that leave us confused and unable to make a decision.
If I were to stop and think about the Big Issue Lady, I can imagine my parents having a conversation about it – each expressing their own point of view, but neither able to persuade the other round to their way of thinking. And then they might turn to me and say “We can’t agree, so you have to decide, do you want to be on mum’s side or on dad’s side?” What a choice! Who do I want to upset?
That is, I think, at the crux of many a difficult decision. Who do you want to upset? If it is just about upsetting one of the voices in your head, maybe that’s not so difficult, but if it’s about upsetting real people, that can leave us stuck. We don’t want to upset anyone, so we do nothing – we avoid a decision. We find a roundabout route that means we don’t go past the Big Issue Lady. And I have to confess, I’ve done that.