One of the highlights of working in the city recently has been buying the Big Issue. At first I hesitated to spend the extra $5, since I am trying to keep spending down until I get a paying job. But on the spur of the moment I decided to buy the magazine instead of a coffee – after all, it only comes out once a fortnight.

At first I saw this as an altruistic sacrifice – I didn’t really want the magazine, but I wanted to support the concept. For those who aren’t familiar with The Big Issue, it is a magazine sold by people who are, or have been struggling with life, one way or another. Many of them are homeless, or were until they became Big Issue vendors. The sales concept is simple – vendors take home $2.50 for every $5 magazine sold. The idea of people supporting themselves through difficult times by doing something productive like selling a magazine is very appealing to me. It’s the constructive aspect of it that I like – these aren’t handouts, this is earning a living.

It only took one issue to discover that it was even less of a handout than I thought. The magazine is a riveting read, and it generally has an engagingly different perspective on the world to the average, mainstream media. There are regular columns by the likes of Helen Razer and Mic Looby, feature articles on a range of fascinating topics, and contributions from Big Issue vendors – some poetic, some rambling, but all compelling. Each issue has a theme, anything from celebrity to literature to the health care system, and the range of thought provoking writing inside is amazing for such a small magazine.

But that’s not even the best bit. This morning as I headed into the city I was feeling rotten. I had a killer headache, I was feeling wretched for shouting at the kids during the early morning scramble that is a school, childcare and work day, and I didn’t feel like I was kicking goals on the project I am working on. Nothing was going right. As the train pulled into Melbourne Central, it occurred to me that it was probably Big Issue time again, and I brightened up.

As I left the station I scanned the crowd for a vendor, but was momentarily disappointed to see none around. Then the crowd parted and I saw a smiling, bright eyed vendor standing near the curb. He caught my eye and called a cheery good morning. I had never seen him before – for some reason this patch seems to have a different vendor every time – and he had no way of knowing that I was a customer. This is his approach to everyone, and he is absolutely typical of all the Big Issue vendors I have met so far. They have a positive outlook on life that is utterly infectious. What’s more, the interaction is real, warm, and wholly human. Today’s vendor made me feel special and appreciated. For a sum total of about three minutes’ chat, I got a day’s worth of lifted spirits. All before I even opened the magazine.

It was such a contract to the daily chaos of the city streets. Think of all the times in the day when you interact with someone, while utterly blocking them out. Passing people in the street, buying something at a supermarket, refusing a brochure or determinedly not making eye contact with someone trying to do a survey, or looking for a donation. Hanging up on telemarketers, or burying yourself in your laptop, iPod or phone to avoid conversation or embarrassment on the train. Cutting yourself off from the world, and from other people, in thousands of tiny ways, all day every day.

Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence” calls these “I-It interactions”, where we don’t engage with the humanity of the person we are dealing with. We simply get what we need and move on. We might as well be interacting with a vending machine. On a hectic day in the city, we can’t afford to engage with every person we walk past. It would take hours to traverse a city block. Nonetheless, all of these efforts to block people out can create a habit of removing yourself from the world.  Of failing to connect with anyone. Each I-It interaction wears away a fragment of our humanity and empathy, separating us from everyone around us.

The opposite of an “I-It” moment is the “I-You interaction”, where you connect with someone, even briefly, sharing eye contact and emotions. Goleman points out that empathy is instinctive and built in – when we see someone smile, our body often responds by smiling back before our brain has had conscious input. It’s infectious. In I-It interactions, we block this response, often by not even looking at the other person. But when we have an I-You moment, the impact of the other person can be profound.

Big Issue vendors seem to have an extra talent for making it past the block and promoting I-You moments. I have bought maybe 10 Big Issues so far, and have walked away from every transaction with an extra bounce in my step, and a broad smile on my face. I started out feeling all virtuous and altruistic, and wound up feeling simultaneously uplifted, and humbled. It has reconnected me to the world. It has led me to engage more with the people around me, and block less. The impact of The Big Issue on my life has been profound. Who’d have thought?


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