Empathy

DISMISS NOT OUR SIBLINGS OF THE STREET

Here you are – downtown and a lot on your mind. It’s already been a busy day but you’re running out of time and there’s still so much to get done. Maybe it would be easier if you just w-

“Excuse me….” Oh no. A crumpled figure steps quite deliberately into your path and starts to roll out a saga to appeal to your sympathy.

Look at this mess – they look like they’ve been doing drugs for five days straight and here they are asking you for handouts. Not only that, they’re giving you a whole story on how they ‘just need money for a bed tonight.’ Another six and a half dollars, apparently. Any change will help.

You can’t tell if their story is genuine or not. Frankly, you don’t have time to stop and sit down with the leftovers of society to determine whether or not they’re worthy of receiving your good care. You have stuff to do and you’re already low on time.

So you refuse to meet their eyes and step around them. “No, I don’t have anything” you say as you step quickly towards getting your to-do list satisfied.

“Okay, thanks for…..” you’re quickly out of earshot as you zip away from them. You’re hoping they don’t follow you like that lady from last week. She was intense. Why can’t these people pull themselves together? There’s enough programs around that they don’t need to be this… pathetic.

Doesn’t matter. You have bigger things to worry about than people that just can’t seem to get it together.

But these withered, troubled faces on the street are more than just some mess to be written off. It’s easy to see them as separate from us – an amalgamation of poor decisions and a destructive personality. Even in the cases where this may be correct, this assumption is grossly incomplete.

First off, all of us are a few changes away from joining them on the street.

Each of us has either been through or knows someone that’s been through the sudden loss of a job and these days its even easier – all you need to do is post something on social media that your employer finds inappropriate.

Losing your job is the easiest example I could think of for how you can end up down and out. If times are hard, let’s say it’s a recession and you aren’t able to find a replacement job, then you can run out of money quickly – especially if you’re unfamiliar with long term unemployment.

If you do end up down and out, and your mental health has some vulnerabilities that are exploited by this new stress, you start to become someone you weren’t before – as the weeks roll on and you can’t seem to get any callbacks from interviews you’re becoming more and more prone to panic and you’re finding it increasingly difficult to get out of bed. Or… perhaps you were this way before but you kept it in manageable levels.

These types of circumstances can disintegrate the life you thought you had faster than you can adjust. It’s easy to take for granted things that you think are concrete, like your job and mental health. But perhaps they’re not as bulletproof as you think and it’s simply the consistency of your routine that brings the feeling of stability.

Second, they do not have the same opportunities most of us have.

There is a great entry from a comic strip called The Pencilsword that shows the effect of privilege through the progression of a person’s professional life – how easily we can look at a person we do not know and write them off as a failure without any recognition for their story. The fabric of their life has definitely been woven differently than yours, but perhaps your fabric was woven more by other, well-to-do people.

Typically the easiest path for a population to take is for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. When you don’t have any money it’s difficult to get a loan, for example, so professional ambition is functionally difficult for you to even get a foothold – whether it’s paying for school or funding a business startup. And if you do get the loan and things don’t work out… being of limited financial means and now bad credit on top of that. Damn.

And the rich typically don’t seek friendships with the poor so there aren’t all those natural connections to the top of the ladder. When you start off in a wealthy family… even in a middle-class family… you start off numerous rungs up the ladder. It’s easier for you to climb higher, and even your failures will be more comfortable given your social and economic surroundings.

Third, treating them as separate from us solidifies their position.

Social isolation is emotionally devastating. It’s difficult enough when you don’t have any friends and feel invisible to the world, but imagine only being visible when there’s disgust thrown in your direction. For those that have already fallen to the gutter, literally and figuratively, it’s almost impossible to get out. Regular society rejects you, and the group that you are now a part of is vampiric and will want their misery to have some company.

I find it laughable that anyone thinks making things like panhandling, drug use, or prostitution illegal will keep it out of society. For one, people don’t like being told what to do and will naturally rebel if they feel inclined to do so.

But more importantly, when these activities are outlawed they become taboo. You’re looked down upon if you’re involved in that group of users. But things like drug use, addiction, prostitution – these are activities that are taken up in excess by those that are looking to soothe some loneliness. They are isolated by pain – an itch that’s proving impossible to scratch – and use some kind of substance or activity to fill the void.

Once you cross that line into the habits of the forsaken you are also cast out. Even without pressure from society, bad habits have a momentum to them – and if you thought you were lonely enough to need a coping mechanism before, try being hooked on something while everyone berates you, shakes a finger at you, and inevitably further deepens your disconnect from anything healthy.

I like the ideas on this topic from Johann Hari.

(While we’re on the topic, I’m also curious about our seemingly failed war on drugs and how other countries have approached a similar situation.)

The seed of thought I’m hoping to plant here is that all of us – every single one – is related. We are all much more alike than we’d like to think, at least what we’re thinking when we’re looking with disgust at a person living a life that we fear. The greatest and the most horrible things in all of human history have been committed by people just like you and me. We can all climb up the ladder of improvement… but unfortunately falling down the ladder is faster and easier to do. And for those of us in good circumstance, especially those that have never fallen very far down the ladder, it’s easy to see those in worse circumstance as failures of their own irresponsible choices.

Everyone has a story. Even if someone is sketchy as hell and yelling at you to give them money, they still have more to them. They have some knowledge that you do not, they have some memories that make them feel truly good, they have a talent of some kind. These are all part of the human experience and it’s damaging to dismiss those that have lost their way. Maybe you won’t want them over for a dinner party, but even something so simple as making eye contact and treating a person with dignity goes a very long way.

We all have the power of choosing how we see the people around us and especially the power of how we choose to treat them. It’s our responsibility to use the privilege that we each have in a way that helps to improve ourselves, our siblings on the street, and the generations ahead of us.

How about you? What do you think of those strewn about the sidewalks? Have you ever had the pleasure of being surprised by someone’s story?

Later, taters!

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