“Poverty is the worst form of violence” – Gandhi
As I was turning left at corner where there is usually someone flying a “Anything Helps” sign, nobody was there, and I noticed my sense of relief. I began to wonder why I felt so self-centered and lacking in compassion. Several things popped up:
- I feel guilty for having many luxuries they do not.
- To see someone who visibly demonstrates the failure and breakdown of this world I live in is a threat to my identity, my sense of belonging. What is my part in this failure?
- I want to deny my own shadow experiences of being rejected, shamed and bullied as a child by telling myself I am not one of “those people,” so I project my shame onto them.
- I feel shame to be living in the midst of an overwhelming and complex systemic problem, telling myself that I have neither the knowledge nor capacity to improve the situation. I was so indoctrinated by my culture to always know the right answer to any situation that to take even a small step in the direction of not knowing is like jumping off a cliff.
Even though I live in a house, I am not “at home” with myself, I carry within me a kind of homelessness built on fear. Today I have a new empathy for those who fear and bully the homeless. I don’t condone their behavior. My self-understanding of my own fears leads me to develop a strategy for unraveling them. Perhaps that strategy would be useful for others.
To pretend we are right, strong and powerful seems to be part of the human condition for most of us, not only for those who hold positions of financial success or government authority, but also those who experienced bullying and shaming as children. Yet vulnerability — letting go of demanding certain behaviors from others (and ourselves) because we think we know “what’s right” — is the answer to the divisions of inequality that threaten our social fabric.
The interventions that lubricate this process towards humility, acceptance and compassion for our fellow travelers on this journey are the very things that the homeless people are doing for themselves now and which they could teach to the rest of us “homies.” THEY are the crisis survivors, the resilient ones, the leaders to the next level of human functioning, believe it or not! They know how to build community and family, to stick together in support of each other, create safe spaces for each other to fall apart and normalize their traumatic experiences, communicate with touch and hugs, validate with empathy, and just hold their ground against overwhelming odds. Their heartfelt courage is extraordinary.
I believe we need the crisis stories of homelessness to be adopted as part of our culture because they offer the opportunity for us to identify and bond with a part of our human family and our own personal, human capacities to respond that we all possess and would be extremely gratified to express. When I sit next to a homeless person and engage them in conversation, learn about their history, their hopes and strengths, then suddenly, without any effort on my part, I find my trust in a fellow human being. I find my courage to respond — to be response-able — in a way that is empathic and compassionate. This is not only what the homeless person needs, it’s also what I need, for us to come home to who we truly are, together. To do otherwise would be contemptuous.
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. That principle is contempt prior to investigation.” — Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd Ed. p. 570.