March 1, 2019
Your attention is valuable. Yes, you. There is someone in your life today who would really value your listening ear or undistracted eye; someone you can learn from.
I met an interesting older gentleman today at the coffee shop. He talked of his mother, who he calls a queen of Kinloch. She died sixteen years ago. He was wearing a warm hat and nice glasses. He is gay. He is diabetic and has a number of other ailments. He showed me his medications in his backpack. He said that the doctor said he needed to take better care of himself, and he explained calmly and rationally that if the doctor were to trade places with him for one month, and live homeless, that he might understand why it is harder for a person to take care of himself living on the street. He said does not like to ask for money. He said he asks around for odd jobs to do, to earn food. He said he has asked every preacher and pastor and priest he can find for an honorable way to earn money.
He is not used to people looking him in the eye. I looked him in the eye and listened to all he had to say. I told him that I agreed with him, that if we could have some sort of exchange program, to force people to live the life of a homeless person for one month before returning to luxury and comfort, then people might see that they do actually live in luxury and comfort, even if they are dissatisfied with their small house or crappy job. I told him about a facebook friend of mine from elementary school recently evicted from her home, and how she and I talked about how everyone (except the super-wealthy) is just one major health crisis away from financial disaster. He listened, surprised to hear me say these things.
Security is the great American Golden Calf, y’all. No one has true financial or bodily security, because we are all mortal; you can’t take it with you. It is the great lie than our money-driven fear-driven security-obsessed culture teaches; that your security is your God-given right. Nope. No sacred text says “certain people deserve and are guaranteed lifelong financial security and health”, but rather, something more along the lines of “some are lucky, and to whom much is given, much is expected.”
We don’t want to look at unhoused people because they make us doubt our American-advertising-instilled “right” to financial security. Their existence makes us uneasy in the gut. The truth is, he equally as human as I am, despite any mistakes he or I might have made, or the hand of cards we have each been dealt. He knows I cannot save him from his troubles. He wasn’t asking me to. He just wanted me to look him in the eye and value him as a person.
When I first moved to St. Louis, I was not used to homeless people. I was scared of them. When walking, I would cross the street to avoid a conversation. Just seeing an unhoused person made me feel a strange icky mixture of fear, disgust, distress, and shame. I didn’t want to smell them. I wanted to wish them away, to pretend I hadn’t seen them. They disturbed my ideas about the fairness of the world. I wanted to blame them for their misfortune. Gradually I started facing uncomfortable truths. So many hardworking, honest people I know live with health challenges and struggle to pay their bills. Many homeless shelters are closing. A huge percentage of the homeless population consists of thrown-away veterans with PTSD, or people who lost their homes because of a loved one with a health crisis and no insurance. The problem isn’t “them”. “They” are “us”.
Could he have been lying to me about some of his story? Sure. I don’t care. People lie to themselves and each other all the time. Sometimes without even realizing it. When you work with middle schoolers, you see how pliable the truth can be; the story changes from telling to telling, the dots get connected differently, blame gets assigned differently, causation gets assigned differently. I have had so many children lie to my face, and all I can do is continue to love them and work with them in the best way I can. Some cultures, especially native american ones, realize how tricksy words can be, painting different realities, morphing into huge misunderstandings. Often what people say is what they WANT to be true. People often leave out really important parts of the story because they don’t want them to be true. Regardless of the exactness of the details of the story, the truth is clear; people need to be looked in the eye and and treated with respect. That’s easy, y’all. Just look people in the face a minute and give them your patient attention, and see what you can learn.