In short; we owe them, big time.
I am one who doesn’t like to live with existential discomfort; I try to avoid disquietude as much as I possibly can.
I make an effort to avoid shoving issues under the rug, or spending more time in denial that I absolutely have to.
So I will, more often than is comfortable, choose to keep my eyes wide-open, feel what there is to feel. look, ponder, and reach for meaning I can live with, some meaning that allows me to live with myself for yet another day.
Case in point: The homeless and street people that publicly populate street corners. I listen to my inner monologs, my outer dialogs surrounding how I choose to respond, or not, to street people who strategically intrude into my flow of consciousness, who solicit my and our support, most often located at highway off-ramps or at traffic lights.
I am always and uncomfortably confronted by the following discourse: Do I choose to “see” them, acknowledge them, and offer them money or food? What does that make me, what does that make them if I do, or don’t? Am I still a good person if I speed on by? Have I dodged the bullet if the traffic light turns green just in time for me to slide on by? (Oops, sorry dude, I gotta go….) Should I slow down or stop traffic and risk irritating the drivers in the vehicles behind me? Is a dollar too little; is a five, ten, or a twenty dollar bill too much? Are they really only looking for money to buy drugs? Am I being taken in, exposing myself as gullible if I succumb to giving them something? Couldn’t they find a job if they really wanted to? Can I look good to myself, my neighbors, and my God in what I choose to do or don’t do? And so on and so forth.
And I attempt to empathize with and put myself, as much as one who has never been a street person, in their shoes. I try to feel how hopeless and how powerless they must feel, to come to grips with what kind of person it takes to stand by the side of the road and subject themselves to the flow of human caring, or more often, human indifference, and do this for hours, days, and weeks?
It takes a clear need, an extraordinary need to take that step, breakthrough those invisible but iron social boundaries, and agree to subject oneself to that.
But is also takes courage to hold on to one’s self-worth, to be vulnerable, to give up all pretense of looking good, and maintain a fragile dignity in the face of all that.
It also requires significant faith in our common humanity. These are people, our neighbors, who have decided that they will do what it takes to make it under intolerable conditions
And I begin to feel we may very well owe them our gratitude for heroism in the face of yuck. By their choice to stand out there, rain and shine, reminds us that “There but for the grace of God go I.” They are a vivid reminder to us, exposing our pretense, our struggle to feel safe and secure in uncertain times.
If we are honest to ourselves we will admit that one job lost, just one catastrophic and expensive health condition from now – and we are right there next to them, holding up a sign asking for a hand out.
They displace my complacency, remind me of our common humanity, and they offer me an opportunity to rise to and wrestle with my own humanity.
And so I offer the next street dweller I pass my gratitude, my acknowledgment: I catch their eye, bless them with good fortune, I make human-to- human contact, ask them to take good care of themselves; I reach for the packets of beef jerky I keep in my car and a dollar, or larger bill. Sometimes I double my order at a McDonald’s and give them half.
I haven’t made it to street person and middle class nirvana yet. I keep inquiring, reaching for that meaning that will break me and them through the boundaries that invisibly surround them and me, and us.
And I ask you who read this to share with me and us: What do you see, how do you cope with those boundaries, and how do you celebrate your humanity in the face of all that? Thank you.