The other day, as I was walking my dog, Mallory, to Market Square, I saw a young man across the street bent over the sidewalk, holding his head between his hands. He was clearly not well.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Where am I?" he replied, near hysteria.
"You are on Market Square in downtown Knoxville," I said, approaching him slowly.
He began weeping and banging his fists on his head. "I went into a store and tried to buy something and they said my card was no good," he said, crying still harder. It was hard to distinguish what the disturbed man said, but the word "monster" kept coming out through his garbled speech. He was wearing a red parka, gray sweats, and sandals, though the temperature was in the teens. There was something childlike in the way he flailed his arms in the air, like a child having a tantrum in public, unconcerned about what anyone else thought about it—in the kind of social unawareness that only children or very innocent people are capable of.
"There are no monsters here," I said. "You're perfectly safe."
The young man sank to his knees, crying as though his heart was broken beyond repair. "Monster, monster," he whispered through his tears. Finally, my training as a social worker kicked in and I called 911.
"There's a young man on Market Square weeping hysterically and talking about monsters," I said. "I think he needs to go to the hospital."
"I'll send someone right away," the dispatcher said, after which I coaxed the man to his feet and began leading him through Market Square. I had no idea where I was leading him to, only that he seemed calmer when we were moving. I was beginning to feel pretty lost myself. Only Mallory seemed to be certain of where we were going. The man was almost choking from sobbing so hard; I wondered what loss he had suffered to make him grieve so. Or was he veering dangerously close to the hopeless edge of bipolar depression?
We continued on our way amid pitying stares from the shoppers in Market Square—young parents with beautiful children dressed gorgeously in colorful, natural fabrics, on their way to buy some extraordinarily expensive and useless object in Market Square's expensive shops. The children stared openly at the tragic, unkempt man wearing sandals in the freezing temperatures of January while their parents took one look at us, then pulled their kids away, as though the man's sadness might be contagious. And perhaps it was, in a way, for I was beginning to recall times of despair in my own life—when I felt and was lost, when I didn't know where I had been or where I was going, when my heart had seemed broken beyond repair. I took the man's hand and looked into his eyes.
"I know what you are going through," I told him. "It will get better. You don't have to feel this way forever."
He looked back at me and for an instant there was recognition in the his stormy green eyes and a glimmer of hope.
We trudged on, Mallory leading us like two children who have lost their way in a dark forest full of treacherous animals. As we approached the Market on Gay Street, the man's eyes lit up.
"Monster, monster," he said.
Suddenly, two policeman approached us and began questioning the young man—who he was, where he had been, and where he was going. He seemed not to know the answer to any of these questions. I went into the Market and asked the manager to come outside with me.
"Was this man just here, and do you have some sort of toy called ‘Monster'?"
The manager took one look at the man. "Yes," he said. "He was here a few minutes ago and got very distressed when his debit card wouldn't go through. He was trying to buy a drink and didn't have the money."
"Can you get one for me so I can buy it for him?"
He went to the back and brought back a large can with the word "Monster" printed in large black letters against a light-green label, then in smaller letters, "energy drink." Who knew?
He was standing now, as hysterical as before.
"Are you going to arrest me?" he asked the policemen.
Suddenly he saw me coming with the Monster and gave me a radiant smile through his tears.
"Monster, Monster," he cried joyfully, as though that energy drink were his salvation, as though his very life depended on it. I wondered at the various things that help us get through the day—through our crises, large and small, through our losses, through the dizzying ups and downs we go through from the mere fact that we are human.
I shook the young man's hand and left him there with the policemen and his Monster. As I walked away with Mallory, I heard the man call after me.
"Thank you, thank you," he said, while I said a silent prayer for the healing of this young man's sorrow and for him to survive long enough for some medication or condition of circumstances to help him see that things can get better.
At least I hope they can. They did for me, and my encounter with this young man, which I will not soon forget, was a reminder that I should never cease being grateful for the happiness I experience now. And I am. I truly am—grateful each time I wake up to see the light of a brand new shining day with all its wonderful gifts. And I know that my very existence on the Earth is a miracle.