The Things They Couldn’t Carry (Part 2)

In the last post, I started out with too much information about all the ad hoc feuds I have had over the years with drivers when I was trying to cross the street and they were either having fun at my expense or using me as a stand in for all their frustrations with life.

Then I did a mini-moral inventory to make sure I didn’t judge homeless people before I became one myself. I pronounced myself absolved.

And I also made the point that though we homeless became homeless based on our choices for sure, many of us shared two other important components to our predicament:

  1. We failed at something important to us or society, something we used to succeed at.
  2. We already felt isolated and didn’t ask for help, figuring it was completely up to us to deal with our problems.

And that is pretty much where we are at now.

Some time has passed and thinking on it, I wonder why it was so important to detail several of my experiences with people in cars? One of my editors told me that the crossing the street stuff wasn’t necessary, and the post would still be good without it.

I could feel he was probably right, and at the same time, I knew there was no way I was going to delete those episodes. For some reason it was important to me to share them.

On reflection, I think I am beginning to understand why.

It was also mentioned last post that a combination of personal failure and isolation often leads a person to find himself splitting from the life he has known, turning his back on his old life and merely existing, drifting, just getting through each day as it comes. To what degree this is by choice is up for debate.

It doesn’t feel like it is something you choose, it feels like something that happens to you, though only God knows the depths of free will we have.

So all the burdens and joys of a normal life, all the responsibilities, the small joys of a child’s smile, or an unexpected breeze during a hot day of physical labor, all the thoughts and hopes for your children, and your own dreams and quiet internal hopes of your own for the future.

Gone. All gone.

You spend most of your day trying not to think about these things, and not to wonder if anyone in your family ever thinks about you, and if they do, is it with kindness, fondness, concern, loss, or is it just with relief that you aren’t there anymore, creating a negative impact on their lifestyles?

One of the shelters I stayed at had a bulletin board for phone messages. My family knew where I was, so many nights I would check the board, just in case someone had thought to contact me. I was pretty persistent, but after a year of nothing, I stopped checking the board.

It hurt too much.

You no longer have your house or any other possession that might define you, or job to do the same, or a relationship to both savor and worry about. I remember once seeing a guy coming to live at the shelter I was at, this was a while ago, and when you move in, you have to reduce all your possessions down to two bags, one big, one medium or small. And he had done that, except for one thing.

He simply could not get rid of his golf clubs. So there he was, raging and cursing to himself in front of the shelter, his golf bag right next to him, and it took him hours to accept the reality of his situation and abandon the golf clubs and go inside.

Some people were laughing at him, but I wasn’t. Not that I don’t ever laugh at people. I just wasn’t doing it in this case. Not that I can relate to golfing either, but I can relate to having to give up how you define yourself, and how some tangible object can become a symbol of who you are, how you prefer to see yourself, and how hard it is to let it go and just accept how things are now.

All the many many things that most people carry around with them, in their minds and hearts, well guess what. We don’t have them.

We simply aren’t carrying what most people carry. In one sense, we are free from all the normal headaches and worries of life, that is so.

On the other though. Freedom, truly, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

So what replaces all that? We are just as social a creature as anyone else, so where is our tribe, our status, our self worth?

Funny thing.

It all resides in the present moment, in our self respect as we see it.

And that is why petty power plays in crosswalks mean so much to people like me.

On one level, you could say it is all we have.

While I do not, cannot, carry what everyone else carries, I do carry something that they do not.

I carry the weight of proving my value, worth and purpose in every moment of every second that I am alive. All that I am, all that I am worth exists in how I am treated and how I am perceived in the present moment.

With everything else gone, these daily moments of respect, of just normal consideration loom much larger in my consciousness than they do in yours.

(I am speaking of course of how I was. I am slowly shedding this mindset as I am working now and thinking about the future. Contacting family still seems like a remote island, but who knows? In time? Maybe.)

It is my way, our way I suppose, of saying “See, I exist as a human just as much as you do, and I deserve, if not respect, all the basic considerations that anyone does. I have value.”

And perhaps that is a big part of why there is conflict between the general public and homeless folk, I mean, there is conflict that is legitimate too, it is only that this sort of conflict is more like a reflex on both sides, a reflex where neither side understands the other side’s perspective, so it can just continue on and on predictably and with regularity.

I have to stress that I am not justifying or excusing the anti-social behavior of homeless people or anyone else, at least I don’t think I am. If anything, having been one and lived among my fellow travelers, I am if anything less patient and less understanding probably than most, and have lower expectations than your average Joe on the street for my peers.

We can be pushy, domineering, unrighteously indignant, rude, selfish, creating mountains of trash and hurt feelings all to no end over and over.

There is no question about that.

I guess all I am trying to do here is provide some context for some of the behavior, to let you know that I and we, at least a lot of us, were once just like you, digging deep and getting things done daily, and then one day we just couldn’t anymore, and being isolated we didn’t ask for help, and having no help we just couldn’t keep up with the pack and were left behind.

And, being left behind, soon the pack was out of sight, and so we had to try to forget the pack we had once been part of, and try to find a way to make a way in our new unmoored existence. We had to create a new society, new peers, new self-conceptions in a solitary way, all in our minds, and that is where we are at.

Now, maybe if you were in the same situation, you might have found a way to dig down deep and just hang in there, maybe maybe so. But we all have secret weaknesses, secret buttons where we think, I can get by as long as no one pushes THAT button, and we may not even be aware of that button until it is pushed, and when it is we think:

“I am sunk.”

So perhaps you might, from time to time, pull out the old ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ phrase and roll it around in your heart when you see one of my peers being a world-class dick or dickess.

I told you of how a few years ago, under COVID, under lockdown, we were pretty much forced to hang out, to talk, and to get to know one another and that led to a major surprise for me, a surprise that continues to this day.

It is amazing the sheer messed-up-ness of the backgrounds of people on the street.

So many raised by abusive parents and stepparents, so many homeless since they were little, thanks to homeless parents, so many wards of the state in one way or another since youth, bounced from foster family to foster family. Sometimes I am amazed people turned out as well as they did.

Lots of guys out here, as has been stated before, because of the horrifically biased family court system that demonizes men and enables the worst impulses of women. There is no male equivalent of feminism to address this on a large scale since men just suffer in silence and think it is all their fault, that they didn’t step up.

But some of the insane judgments these guys are under you literally wouldn’t believe. Alimony and child support payments at levels where they literally cannot pay for their own place, their own food, and then on top of it, the demonization that calls them deadbeat dads.

And another one, and this surprised me most of all. I have met many many folks on the streets who have lost a child. Lost children for sure, the custody of children, but lost children to death too.

A lot of them.

If ever there was a reason to think life is pointless and let things just drift. . .

So what is to be done? How deep are we in our misery? Would a helping hand at the right moment shock us out of our funks and give us a new outlook and new hope?

Funny you should ask that.

A while back I was sharing my experiences with a group of villagers, and Paster Gabe said to me:

“Well you have spoken of people in the social services or from churches who were only offering false hope, and that it frustrated you, but what if someone had reached out to you back then who was sincere and didn’t give up? Would that have gotten you off the streets sooner?’

That was a good question, and I had to think about it, and thinking about it reminded me of a church I dealt with during this time. They were one of the few churches that not only preached at our shelter but invited us to come to their services and to a free dinner.

This was very unusual so I went to the dinner, which led to going to a bible study for men, which led to attending their services from time to time.

This church and a well defined program for reaching out to homeless folk, which consisted of getting them involved with the church and signed up and taking classes to prepare them for their new community.

It was, basically, get with the program, the gang is all doing it, you won’t regret it. This program had been very successful for many people, leading them away from addiction, crime and homelessness and into employment, housing, and a faith community.

For me though, this approach would never have worked. If I am going to sign up for something, I want to know its tenets, how it differs from other denominations, what it is really all about, before I will sign on any dotted lines, whether they are on a piece of paper or stitch invisibly across the heart.

So I decide to keep attending the bible study for men. I figured that they had probably been burned by people just using them for their resources and moving on, and that was why they wanted to see some commitment before helping lift people up and out of the streets. Totally fair enough.

It just wasn’t for me, and I decided instead I would attend the bible study for men to show them I was serious, and attend their services from time to time.

So here was the deal. I attended the bible study for men for an entire year, and I got to know the guys pretty well, learning about their struggles, family situations, doubts and concerns, we all shared all that, and it was a really positive experience overall.

And one thing sort of soured me on the experience.

As good as these guys were, as solid and caring and understanding, after a whole year, not one of them offered to help me with anything.

They offered to pray for me all the time, assuring me that prayer was very powerful, and certainly it is, but it seemed really off to me that no one really acknowledged that I was in need. And I am not talking about something big like letting me stay at their place or giving me money. Nope. I would have been happy if someone asked me to housesit, or offered to store some of my stuff, or invited me over for a home cooked meal, or let me take a shower at one of their places.

Something, anything, to show me that their Christianity extended beyond talk.

One time and one time only I mentioned that I was very frustrated with being homeless for so long, and you should have seen how they, and in particular one guy, reacted. He kind of blew air through his lips as if to say, “What now, after all I have done,” and then he began to ask me about my skills like it was an instant job interview and I was inconveniencing him mightily.

Well now, I couldn’t believe that. I wasn’t even asking for anything, just saying that it was frustrating to be homeless, and I told him so, that I wasn’t asking for a handout or a job, just sharing my feelings. And that was the last time I was honest with them.

Now remember, these are all good, solid, caring guys, and their church has a specific protocol for dealing with homeless people and it works, it was just they couldn’t deal with someone who didn’t fit into the ‘just do what we do without any questions’ mold.

And it has been experiences like this, many many experiences like this, that led me to feel that people in the outside world didn’t really get it, had too many problems of their own and were unable to reach out to me or even listen to simple things about my life, shutting off in their own way, just turning off when I spoke.

And so I had to answer Gabe with a “No.”

It isn’t just that you are disconnected from your old life, and tasked with maintaining your dignity any way you can on the streets, that you cannot carry all the normal burdens, and also have to carry other invisible burdens that are incomprehensible to most people, no, it isn’t just these two things.

It is also the false hope that is the killer, that turns you off before anyone can get through. And maybe you just have to let that disappointment run its course, just heal from it somehow until you are ready to trust someone out there will really care again.

You are like one of Pavlov’s dogs. They ring a bell at the same time they feed you, and pretty soon the dogs start salivating at the bell alone without any meat because the two have become associated.

Except for us, the OFFER OF HELP has become associated in your mind with FALSE HOPE and LIP SERVICE, so even if the person talking to you is offering real help, the offer itself has become associated with the falseness, and you probably won’t accept it.

So anyway what is the point of all this?

It really isn’t to excuse bad behavior. I tend to be way more cynical and less patient than employees at the village when it comes to bad behavior by my cohort. I have just been at their mercy for too long.

I guess I am just trying to feel my way to a subtler, and maybe deeper truth, and to explain that in a real way, most homeless people were just like you until something bad happened that was too much, and then they weren’t, they just disconnected, and even though in a very real way, homeless people can’t carry normal burdens, they are carrying a different type of burden, one that is totally invisible, and a big part of that burden comes from the disappointment of supposed humanitarians who are only offering lip service.

I know it can be hard, but maybe you could just try to see us in that light every now and then, even if we are just being objectionable, rude, or disconnected, and see that sometimes it just takes time, time waiting to be able to feel again, time just doing, on the surface, nothing, time to let an internal process play out in its own time and in its own way.

Right now I am working for the first time in years, and have all sorts of organizing suddenly to do, with my phone and my computer and my life, and sometimes I am frazzled and frustrated and have trouble dealing with it all, but tough as it all is, it is driven by a purpose, and that makes it soo soo much easier than all the years I was doing nothing.

And that is pretty much that.

Thanks for reading.

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