He stood there, sobbing, with all pretence of trying to control it gone.
“Why are you crying?” the judge asked him.
“Because I’m messing up my life,” the young man blubbered.
He was a pathetic sight, a tall, athletic young man in the prime of his youth, reduced to tears in a courtroom of his peers, as humiliating a public forum as you can get.
That was almost two decades ago in a different county and notwithstanding that I’ve seen numerous similar incidents ever since, I still remember it clearly.
He wasn’t crying because he had messed up his life. He was crying because he didn’t know why he was messing up his life, and didn’t know how to stop himself from doing it.
He was crying because he knew that whichever way he turned, for good or bad, he was being judged and maybe he even knew that he wasn’t mature enough to move beyond that.
At some point most of us mature a little.
We come to realise the things that matter — your health and the people you love. Most of us come to appreciate the value of sincere kindness.
I might be accused of over-simplifying matters by saying the following, but I’ll say it nonetheless. People with any degree of mental anguish, whether it’s a mild form of anxiety, to full blown psychosis have one thing in common — they’re stuck.
They’re stuck and they don’t have the tools to unstick themselves.
And that, in as broad a sense as possible, is what therapy is intended to do — to help people reverse out of the ditch and get back on the road.
The young man was crying because he was stuck, and found himself down a lonely road, surrounded, he thought, only by unkindness. And part of being stuck is that he couldn’t see where to go for help. He had done a terrible thing, angrily assaulted somebody close to him.
He had done stupid things, like ignoring his Probation Officer and failing to appear in court and driving his car without insurance. And he had done unwise things, like trying to medicate his self hate away with the kind of medication you can’t buy in a chemist shop.
But his anguish had allowed the mask to slip, and we saw him for what he was. Maybe he even saw it himself.
He was just a shipwrecked soul who needed the lifejacket of kindness, maybe even a degree of tough love, but most of all he needed somebody to reach out to him and say that things would be alright, that he was a person of value, a person worth loving.
I’ve covered, I estimate, more than 60,000 court cases in my time in this gig.
Most of them are particularly uninteresting — little old ladies driving at 13kph over the limit or lonely old bachelors a pint or two over a different kind of limit, and lost headless young men trying to prove themselves to themselves.
If you pay enough attention in a courtroom you will learn many things about the terrible world.
What I’ve learned most is that many many people, too many, are marooned and lost, clinging to a disintegrating and toxic raft of their own sense of self, afraid to let go and save themselves.
They need nothing more complicated than to feel a sense that they are worthwhile and valued by others.
Alas, I’ve also learned that as a society we take particular delight in being judgemental and cruel.
Shamefully, we are particularly hard on people who most need in need of our kindness — the poor, the mentally ill and drug addicts.
People who study these things say it’s the sign of a society ill at ease with itself.
It says far more about ourselves than it does about those we like to call ‘scumbags’.
Perhaps if we stopped judging others, we’d maybe, finally, stop judging ourselves.
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