By Rebecca Fletcher

I’ve never met anyone who’s told me that they need more stress in their life or that they didn’t feel like they had enough to do. Day-to-day living seems more than enough, never mind the constant reminders we have thrown at us about how we can get more out of life and be better people. Work out, keep happy, eat well, maintain your friendships, travel, engage in your local community. It’s usually a coin toss whether we run out of time or energy first.

I can’t give the world a day off, but what I’m proposing takes seconds of your time.

Waiting next to stranger one day (we’ll call her Heather), a man walked past while making an off-colour racist comment. Realising he’d been heard, he apologised to Heather and me. Heather’s reticence to accept his apology meant that he stopped to have a chat to us — the remnants of a cigarette in one hand and an open can of Jim Beam in the other.

It would have been easy to ignore him and get mad about public drunks ruining my day and dragging down the tone of the neighbourhood. Instead, I did what my mother always told me not to do — I chatted. Within five minutes he had told us that it was his birthday next month (he was turning 52); he had served in the army when he was younger, he had rescued dogs from illegal dog fighting years earlier, and that when his mother had died no-one had called to tell him. He apologised for drinking and said that he couldn’t refuse it if a mate offered it to him. Heather told him that was no excuse. I told him he should get in touch with the local RSL for help. At home later, I realised something — where the woman next to me had seen an alcoholic, I had seen someone who likely had PTSD.

A week or so later I was riding the bus home when an older man, smelling a little more of scotch than anything else, decided to engage a friend and I in conversation. We could have ignored him and moved to the back of the bus, but instead we started chatting with him. He told us that he was a Vietnam veteran, with sons currently serving in Timor and Iraq. I’m not going to condone his behaviour, but in light of his circumstances, I can understand why he would choose to spend his days as he did.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with stress though. On the wrong day, these would have been stressful events for me. Strangers, clearly inebriated, confronting me in public? No thank you! But by ignoring the knee-jerk reaction and showing interest, I feel like I was rewarded. I don’t consider these negative experiences. They reminded me that, although we all live in the same space, we don’t all live the same way. For the sake of a little bit of my time, patience and understanding, both parties went away feeling a little better.

It’s so easy to judge. We’re all guilty of making snap judgements. But by recognising that their situations might be more complicated than they seemed on the surface, it was easier for me to not get angry about it. They didn’t want money from me, they didn’t want to get angry at me, they just wanted someone to talk to — something I could manage. What would judgement have done? Suddenly I feel like I’m living in a world full of strangers that I don’t want to interact with. It makes me think about problems I have to deal with, and it makes me feel like I’m swimming against the tide.