In the wake of the recent tragedy at the shelter in Salt Lake City, it is always prudent to remind ourselves that we can’t wait for tragedy to strike before we care for others; the events narrated in my piece happened a few days before the tragedy at the shelter. It depicts my efforts trying to help someone in need, and how I knew that I couldn’t wait around. We must act compassionately if we are to care for others: We must act compassionately now, not when something tragic happens.
From my in-progress book on homelessness …
Greg Boyle, who works to help gang members recover and find meaning in life, once said that in order for the circle of compassion to grow, we must stand at the margins: We must, in other words, stand where others refuse to stand, where others will tell us we are wasting our time.
I was challenged last night, in a way I didn’t expect, in a way I wasn’t even sure I could handle. To deal with my usual anxiety, mania, and strong emotions, I went on my nightly walk. I hate those nights more than anything, because they can be so draining. I had my copy of Lawnboy with me, a gay coming-of-age novel that I appreciate and love a lot, and that I was drawing on for inspiration. I was keeping in mind the idea that we must attract the good, and we must attract the good by believing we can attract the good. I knew that good things could happen, if I just believed.
But ultimately, I didn’t get very far. I met a man who was intoxicated with either alcohol or drugs. Either way, he was incoherent. He kept swearing, drooling.
When I first met the man, whose name was Jake, I was afraid. I was afraid because I didn’t know what the psychological state was of this man, and I didn’t know if he was dangerous. But I could tell that something was wrong, and my instinct to help, and stand on the margins, kicked in. So, I began to talk to him.
I told him to think about what he needed. I told this over and over again as I talked to him, which I did because I was trying to find out what this man needed. If he could articulate what he needed, it meant he wasn’t too far gone, and I could help him. But unfortunately, he didn’t, and couldn’t, tell me what he needed. Instead, he kept collapsing on the ground, and was confused.
I told him to think of peaceful places. I told him to imagine a beach. I asked him, Had he ever been on a beach? I did this to try to trigger something in his mind. I remember as I kept talking to him, feeling more and more at ease with what society considered an outcast, that he seemed to me as though he had been possessed by demons. This occurred to me because of a church sermon I went to, where it was assumed that demon possession could still be a real thing, as it happened during Christ’s time, perhaps it still happened now.
Anyway, Jake told me at one point that I had beautiful eyes. This was while he would randomly swear. But this was a complement for me, and I told him he had beautiful eyes too, which he did.
Still collapsed on the ground, I honestly didn’t know what to do, but to try to comfort him. Then the brilliant idea came that I needed to call the ambulance. I couldn’t just leave him there, as the situation could escalate some point in the future, and no one was stopping to help this man. So I called 911, fearing that this might make things worse, because it’s scary when you’re in a whacked out state of mind to have people like officers and medics surround you. I remember the many times I was hospitalized, and how intimidating it was to have police officers and medics surround me. My first inclination, even though I didn’t act on it, was to fight back, because they can be overpowering.
I saw good in this individual. I saw a lot of good, in fact. But then things began to go downhill. The plan was to take Jake to the VOA. I remember scrambling to think of some message to pass on to Jake, some message that might encourage him. I knew I wasn’t a saint or prophet or anything, so it would have been ridiculous to expect me to say something so poignant it changed Jake’s life. Nonetheless, I asked the officer to tell Jake when he came to that people were looking out for him (I was thinking of me and The Legacy Initiative, as I was sure this man was homeless). The officer curtly replied that he wasn’t going to be with him, that maybe he could put it in the notes, but pretty much implying it wasn’t his responsibility to pass on messages of hope.
Okay, so a little strange of an idea on my part, but I persisted. I asked again for them to just put it in the notes. I was going to leave, because my work was done and Jake was gone, but that wasn’t in the books for me. The officer petulantly said that Jake treats their officers like shit. I said I saw the encounter of Jake and the medics/officers, and that the man was confused and intoxicated, with me implying there was no intention for Jake to be cruel. I believed this, of course, not because I was trying to be biased and non-objective, but because I talked to Jake for a good twenty to thirty minutes or so, and he wasn’t violent or mean at all. He didn’t treat anyone like shit, from what I saw. This was a calloused thing to say. They then said Jake tried to bite them, like he was some kind of wild animal. I didn’t see this; I might have missed it, but I saw instead officers and medics trying to pin this man to the ground, a man who was obviously afraid and out of his mind. They assumed that when I said Jake wasn’t trying to bite them, that I obviously didn’t see what had happened, thus undermining my credibility. They also said that he was someone they’d seen many times before, implying this man was a lost cause and wasn’t worth their time: But I stand on the margins for a reason.
Later, they asked me how long I’d been helping the homeless, when I told them I work for The Legacy Initiative, a local non-profit humanitarian organization; I said a few years. They flaunted and boasted that they’d been serving for at least twenty years, implying automatically that they knew better than I could ever know. They undermined me in further ways as well: At one point, I tried to explain that the man was obviously confused and not intending to be violent: This came when they made the accusation that all of the homeless they work with are violent and deranged, a blatant stereotype that I do not tolerate. One of the people said I was cutting him off verbally, implying I was being disrespectful and flagrant, which was not the case. They said it was great that I wanted to help the homeless (though this was of course sarcastic), but that there was a bigger picture I was missing. I tried to figure out what “bigger picture” I was missing, so I asked them to educate me. They continued to talk, mostly say stuff I don’t remember because it was late and my meds were kicking in, but I do recall that mostly what I was heard was harsh judgement and stereotyping. Then they said, when I had more questions, and if the “education” was good enough, that they had to get going because they were emergency personnel. This was a convenient way to deflect responsibility, and it worked, because I knew that they were emergency personnel and had to get going, but it left me feeling immensely dissatisfied.
They refused to see my side of the story, and to hear Jake’s side of the story, and listen to what I had to say about what I had observed; their minds were fixed on what they thought of this man, and of the homeless population, for that matter. This encounter wasn’t just demeaning because of the way in which they treated me, but the way in which they missed the point of what I was doing, the way in which they tried to flip it around on me, assume that I was wasting my time and making presumptions about me and my values. They were also demeaning to Jake. Jake only “fought” because he was scared. Thinking about the way in which they talked about Jake, they talked about him as if he was fully responsible for his nature and his choices. I could believe that, and do in fact believe it. But I also show mercy. No, I wasn’t the one apprehending him, but I wouldn’t have used force. Not that this matters when force is the way they do things with people like Jake, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective. Meaning, why was Jake calm with me, and why did they suddenly get a negative impression when the emergency personnel got involved? Just something to think about, the way in which skewed and understandably burnt-out perspectives can cause a lot of damage, the way in which stereotypes are dangerous and cruel, and paint unforgiving pictures of people. And that to me was the important thing: When they were saying that Jake was trying to bite them, this might have been true, but Jake’s resistance was too weak to really cause any damage. So even if Jake had been a violent man, he didn’t have the strength in that moment: So why paint him in that light? And again, why was he kind to me and not to the emergency personnel?
I think this man was possessed by demons, as I said before; hard and cruel demons that need to be excised and exorcised, and that were put there by society and trauma. The demons of apathy. Nobody stopped to help this man. This will sound ironic, but I feel blessed that I struggle with mania and mental illness, because it has led me to be more empathetic towards those who feel pain from mental illness and substance abuse. It’s counterintuitive and ironic, but I honestly feel that. I’m blessed to feel the pain of another, that night and many nights. I couldn’t help the situation more than I did, but God knows I did my best. It took a lot of courage, courage I didn’t know I had. The real courage came not from dealing with Jake, but with dealing with the emergency personnel. I don’t know what their problem was, but their skewed perceptions were dangerous. I get that they are in high-stress jobs, but compassion and accountability is so far removed from how we treat the vulnerable that it’s sickening and frightening. Which is why I continue to stand on the margins: Because, I care, and will continue to care … even if I’m the only one that cares in the heat of the moment. I wish I’d known what to say to the personnel, but they were blatantly hostile, undermining, undercutting, and distinterested in what I had to say: But their support of my actions doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good action. See, one thing they missed about the conversation, the argument, was just because you see things a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it is. Which is why I was looking for all sides of the equation. There are still many mysteries to this event, but it wasn’t all black and white, and that black and white thinking is dangerous. I won’t begrudge these workers for doing their job, and feeling like they are devalued, as those are real feelings … but I won’t tolerate someone that blatantly misses the fact that a good argument isn’t empty rhetoric, authoritarian, ad hominem, isn’t about showing how much more superior you are, isn’t about putting people trying to help, like me, down. That’s important.
And so, I stand at the margins, watching as the circle of compassion grows and expands …