I was 12 years old when I first saw the inside of a psychiatric ward. It’s not an experience I would recommend for most young people, but it was certainly instructive. The most vivid memory I retain from it all is not anything I saw, but instead something I heard. Upon my entry, I encountered a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard before — the sound of pure, unadulterated anguish.

I discovered rather quickly that this sound arose from a girl not much older than I was at the time. She had been raped. Her room was directly across the hall from mine. Just how long she’d been in the hospital was unclear to me, but I found out she’d been wailing in just that way ever since she arrived. And she continued to do so, hour after hour, day after day, until one morning she was gone.

I’ve never forgotten her. I heard once that it’s easier to block out an unpleasant sight than it is to shake a sound, because sounds by their very nature linger longer. Maybe that’s true, but one thing I know for sure is that there’s nothing I’ve ever read on the subject of sexual assault that has come close to capturing the reality of what I heard in that young woman’s voice. To all those who dismiss the severity of sexual assault, I wish I could submit that sound, so you might hear what I heard: the sound of a girl trying desperately, with every breath, to escape from the crime scene that was her own body.

I think of that girl, not much older than me, and I hope she was able to find some measure of peace, somewhere, somehow.

Almost a decade later, I wound up once more in a similar setting — another psych ward, this time of the adult variety. In this place, where doors don’t have locks but beds have restraints, I met an elderly gentleman I’ll call Bill. I could tell right away that Bill’s body was badly breaking down, as he struggled mightily to move around. Worse still, I soon discovered that his brain had betrayed him, rendering him unable to recall almost anything about his life. Bill had already been in the ward for far longer than anyone is supposed to stay in such places, quite simply because he had no place else to go.

I was there the day Bill’s family finally came to see him. Or rather, to say goodbye. The purpose of their visit was abundantly clear: they were there to inform the nursing staff that they would at no point be taking Bill back. I saw Bill later that night, and I could tell he knew what had happened, even with his mental state as it was. Or, at the very least, he felt it. He was left abandoned and alone, without even the comfort his memories might have offered.

I think about Bill during this time of year. With the speed at which he was deteriorating, I doubt very much that he is still around. If that is indeed the case, I hope that, in death, he was able to find the kind of dignity that eluded him in the final act of his life.

That was in the spring of 2010. In the summer of that year, I found myself in a Maritime rehab, where I roomed for a time with an amiable young Acadian, who shared a name with a legendary entertainer. Neither one of us understood the other’s language that well, but we managed to get along fine just the same. And he lived up to his name. I was constantly astonished by how, for someone afflicted by such a horrendous addiction, he remained so staggeringly full of life. Unlike so many of the others there, the drugs had not managed to sap him of any energy, and he was a buoyant, dynamic force. Never was this more evident than when he spoke of his daughter, whose picture he carried with him at all times. His face was electric in those moments.

I remember all of that just as well as I can recall when all of that changed. I remember the faces of the men who gave my friend the papers that day, the papers that told him he and the mother of his child had been deemed “unfit parents” and that his daughter would no longer truly be his. Suddenly, he didn’t have so much energy. By the end of my stay there, he didn’t have any energy at all. I think of him and his daughter, mostly because I’m afraid no one else is.

I think of these people I’ve met along the line, and I think of so many more. I think of the black sheep, the outcast; the battered, bruised and beaten down; the uninvited, the unwanted. I think of that family member no one is eager to see at Christmas dinner; I think of all those for whom there is no Christmas dinner. I think of them, and then I have to pause to ask myself why we don’t hear from them.

I wonder about a world that conflates wealth with wisdom. I worry about a world that devotes an endless supply of stenographers to the rich and powerful, ensuring that every utterance of men like Warren Buffett is preserved for posterity, yet also reserves a bottomless pit of suffering for the powerless, those who cannot make their voices heard.

I question why these people are silenced when they have so much to tell us. I think about all those mired in darkness, those who have been knocked to their knees. I think about those who’ve managed to get back up; I think about all those who haven’t. I think about how these people have more wisdom to impart than a billion Buffetts could muster — a wisdom that can only be attained by having tested the resiliency of the human spirit.

I think about how this has happened. How it’s easy to dismiss this all as a societal problem, but how, at the end of the day, society is just a collection of people like you and me. So I ask, what can we do?

During the holiday season, many people donate to worthy charities across this country working to ensure that the season shines equally bright for everyone. That being said, I hope that throughout the year we go beyond just opening our wallets.

This new year, I hope that we will also open our eyes to those suffering all around us; that we will open our ears to their stories; that, most importantly, we will open our hearts in a fundamental way. And that we will do these things not just as a favour to those who are struggling, but as a favour to ourselves. It might just help us all to discover something essential. Because if I’ve learned anything in my life thus far it is this: the broken people are the most beautiful.