(with a nod to this great song by Highly Suspect)
November, 1998: It was a beautiful morning in Buena Vista Park, in the Upper Haight district of San Francisco. The sun was shining, the air clean and crisp… a perfect time and place for a father and his daughter to walk through the park, enjoying the great outside. As they ambled along the path, the young girl saw someone lying in the grass on (and under) some cardboard, appearing to be asleep. The girl, curious, asked why the person was sleeping there. The father responded, “Because they’re a loser and need to get a job. Either that or they just need more coffee. Maybe we should bring them some!” and started laughing. The girl laughed a little, too, and they continued to walk.
I was the person feigning sleep on that cardboard in the park, and I heard every word.
It’s interesting what people say when they think the person in question can’t hear them. Already in a place of deep shame, depression, humiliation, and a strong desire to just not be alive anymore, that overheard conversation served to verify what I’d suspected about myself for years, and it helped carve a larger space in which I could nestle and roost in those feels. I’d been attempting to survive on the streets for a month, but I’d been addicted for the 3-4 years leading up to it, and if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s the feeling of being unworthy and less-than. Sub-human, even.
Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and if you haven’t read any of her books, I highly and strongly recommend you do. Read all of them, and start at the beginning (The Gifts of Imperfection is my favorite). But if you only choose one, I’d say to pick up her latest, “Braving the Wilderness.” I say this without having finished reading it yet (I’m working on it!), but in there, she offers up four paths to true belonging; to being bravely and wonderfully ourselves. She makes it clear that we cannot experience true connection or full acceptance and belonging until we show our genuine selves to the world.
I bring this up because one of paths begins with, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” It reminds me of the father and his daughter as they walked through the park that day. The father had a choice in that moment: to be kind, to lean in, to empathize and to share some real insight with his daughter about the world, about humanity. To encourage connection. Instead, he chose the other path: derision, sarcasm, and judgement.
I genuinely believe these choices are what lie on either side of fear. If we find that we’re afraid or unsure of the unknown – like addiction, or mental illness, or homelessness – it can be easy to let that fear take us to a place of judgement. To “otherizing” that person in order to grant ourselves some semblance of feeling control over our own destiny. “That would NEVER happen to me.” Right? But from that fear and uncertainty, we have another option: to move in, as Dr. Brown recommends. To understand, to empathize, and to ask how we can help. This helps drive connection with those who are suffering, and who may simply be in desperate need of a kind and loving heart to shine bright enough to light their way to the other side of the struggle.
And I find myself thinking about all this after watching a video of a woman from Kentucky who is faced with no choice but to stop her dialysis because she can’t afford to get there and back 3x a week, and is dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for her healthcare – which is currently under near constant threat by our administration. You should watch the video, and then tell me you don’t feel something in the depths of your stomach, heart, and throat for this woman who you’ve never met, and likely never will.
I guess the question is, do you feel empathy and compassion, or do you feel disgust and derision?
In case you’re wondering, I fall firmly in the empathy & compassion camp. I don’t know how you can watch it and not see the pain in her eyes and the desperation (but also, the resignation) in her voice. There is no doubt in my mind that this country has the power and resources to take care of every single person in it, comfortably and compassionately and comprehensively, without it negatively impacting anyone else or causing a lack of resources in other ways. We just have to prioritize that, instead of buckling down in fear of losing what little we have. The powers that be have convinced us there is scarcity, and they do this because it continues to line their pockets as we all move further in the other direction of struggle.
I think it all starts with getting back to in-person connections. The internet enables us to stay connected, but there is something significantly lacking in those interactions: the humanity of each other. We all need to start holding hands more, talking in person more, listening more, letting our guard down more and getting real and vulnerable and brave more.
I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the common connection we all share, just by being alive. There’s room for all of us.