Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Seeing and not seeing

If you live in Chicago, as I do, you will eventually see a homeless person.  You can find the homeless in other cities, obviously, but I don't see, for example, the Los Angeles homeless every day on the way to the Metra, seeing as how I am unable in my current state of evolution to surpass the limits of time and space.  I am not a connoisseur of the homeless; I saw homeless men and women when I was a kid coming up to the city, and I see them on my way to wherever I happen to be working at the time, but I'm sure there are Chicago natives who have been ignoring the homeless for far longer than I.  Nevertheless, I have now seen, on multiple occasions, homeless people with dogs.

The mind already puts up barriers when we're dealing with the homeless.  I know I do it all the time.  I stare straight ahead and pretend not to see them.  I turn up my .mp3 player.  I fiddle with my phone.  I walk on, convincing myself in that moment that it's very important for me to get to wherever I'm going, that I don't have the time to stop or the money to give (although frequently I don't have to pretend about that last part), that someone else will stop and help, that they'll be okay.

In other words, I tell myself stories.

When you see a homeless man clutching a dog, this practice goes into overdrive.  You have to tell yourself a story to make that okay because if you really truly confronted what that meant it would ruin your day at the very least.  That guy has to be a scammer.  It's not his dog, it's just a stray he's found to make people feel sorry for him.  He's not really homeless, he's just bilking gullible tourists out of their money, and he's going home to some apartment somewhere after the lunch rush.  He's a drug addict, or an alcoholic.  He knows where the shelters are and just doesn't want to go there and get help.  He's too lazy to keep a job.  He pissed away an inheritance.  He deserves to be out there.  He deserves what he got.  It's fine.  It's okay.  You don't have to care.

Never mind that health care for many people is prohibitively expensive and that if he has any kind of medical condition or complication that becomes too much for him to financially cope with he can be out on his ass.  Never mind that not everyone has a stable family structure that can support them through hard times.  Never mind that people with mental illness, especially returning veterans with PTSD, can find it difficult to function in a society that doesn't fully understand that kind of struggle.  Never mind that the notion of someone making a full and healthy five-to-six figure yearly wage begging chump change from passing strangers is so far into the realm of fantasy that you might as well believe he used to be a dragon slayer.  Never mind that so many people in this world struggle with addictions of all shapes and sizes and that none of us are in a position to judge someone who battled with those demons and lost, that it's not a matter of weakness or strength but of access to treatment and care and empathy from out fellow humans and that anyone can be brought low.

We tell ourselves stories because we don't want to believe that that could be us, and we go into overdrive when we see a man or a woman out on the street with a dog because that just brings that reality into sharper relief.  We tell ourselves stories to eliminate the humanity of the homeless.  But they are human, living in conditions we can't and won't imagine, and our illusions are stretched to the breaking point when we try to make a monster out of a man holding a dog.

"If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me," said Jesus.  I don't believe he was the son of God, but I do believe he was more revolutionary than people really know.  Just as that man holding the dog was more human than I, and the sea of humanity passing him by, could bear.

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