From my in-progress book on homelessness …
I recently had the honor and privilege of feeding homeless teenagers breakfast, at a local homeless youth resource center. I have had much trouble in the past with many, and various, organizations, and have felt as though I am not valued, that I am not needed, and that I cannot make a difference. This has of course damaged my self-perception, my confidence in doing this hard work, but nonetheless, I have pushed forward.
I was able to make breakfast for the kids not of my own doing, of course. If it had been of my own doing, I would have been turned away as always. But my friend, with whatever charm he had, was able to orchestrate this, and he invited me to come serve with him.
So, I went, and what follows is my story and analysis.
The work was deceptively intensive. We cut up papaya, set up plates with blueberries and pancakes, washed dishes, served food … the list goes on. The work itself was intensive and not exactly what I wanted to do: I would find more value being able to really sit down and talk to the kids. Nonetheless, the work was rewarding, in and of itself, because I knew doing this hard work for the kids was paying off, in that the kids were being served.
The kids were an interesting group. One of the kids was struggling with drug addiction and mental illness, and I didn’t find this out until later. In the meantime, I had off and on conversations with him. At the beginning, he was asking for me to heat up his pancake, which I happily did. Once that happened, he started talking about how he spent time in jail and how he was unclothed in jail, and basically implying that this was degrading for him. I resumed this conversation later, by thinking of my own jail experience, where they made me do the same thing, and I told him that indeed, jails are unethical. He agreed with me, and that was the conversation.
As I went through the day, continually serving up food, I realized that I could perhaps encourage this kid, even though I was a fool and I knew it, even though I had a depth that was no doubt going to get me in trouble, as it always did in the past. So, I played my best card, and told the kid about the mythological phoenix. I said, “Sometimes you have to rest on the bed of ash, other times, you get to soar with your fire wings in the sky.”
It was my best card. This, in all honesty, is how I have gotten my own mental illness to work. I know that sometimes, I’m going to feel terrible, and I’m going to feel like I’m dead, trying to rise from the ashes but failing, which is why I referenced that sometimes you have to simply rest on the bed of ash, instead of forcing yourself to rise up. Other times, during my episodes of mental illness, I feel better, usually after hard times, and I see the world in a brighter light. In order to build yourself back up, sometimes, you have to let yourself and your mind break down. I was hoping I could pass down this metaphor to the teenager, in the hopes that indeed, he would understand, it’s part of the process. His mental illness won’t define him.
He didn’t really say much. I’m not sure if it in fact was a helpful thing to say.
But it was the best I could do.
Unfortunately, later on, he told me in a rush that he was going to go: He was struggling with drug addiction and the voices were bad and he was going to go. This crushed me, because I’d felt we were connecting, and I’d hoped more than anything that I could add some goodness to this kid’s life. I don’t know if I succeeded. My friend, who’d orchestrated this volunteering escapade, told me later that the mind is a complex thing, and we can’t solve its problems in a minute: That, it takes time. And indeed, the kid told us specifically that we were doing a good thing, so we must have made some kind of impact.
Anyway, this experience crushed me, but I knew I could only expect something like this to happen. You can’t push too hard or you alienate. I thankfully didn’t push too hard, just tried to use inspiring metaphors in discussion and keeping the discussion itself to a minimum, but indeed, I understood at the time that there was nothing more I could do, no matter how bad I wished I could do more. That is my struggle, with the depth I try to convey and experience: I wish I could do more, constantly. A friend of mine later told me that doing something is better than doing nothing, but I want the right answer, not just action: I want to do the right thing, on all counts, the perfect thing, on all counts, I want to experience depth and share depth, and I don’t want limitations. But I understand that indeed, I can’t solve the world’s problems, and I have my limitations.
Another one of the kids caught me off guard because he was a kid I’d seen before, and even talked to, at the library. I had no idea he was homeless, in other words, and found out that he was. This taught me immediately, that indeed, you never know who is homeless, or what the life story is of someone, of anyone, you know. This humbled me, especially because I’d read pieces about homelessness in front of him before, about homeless kids, about my intense appreciation for street kids. I wonder in all honesty if any of that ever meant anything to him. Maybe, maybe not, but the point is: Depth.
Another one of the kids told me to watch a movie called War Paint, a movie that she highly recommended. I hope to watch it, we will see. But she was cool. She had a good heart, described how she punched a wall, and my friend totally described how you’ll always lose that fight with the wall. That’s just how it is. She just laughed, and agreed genially.
There were other experiences as well, too many feelings and experiences and impressions to ever fully describe.
But I will tell you this: This was a meaningful experience. After years of rejection, I finally, somehow, got a chance to serve homeless kids. It was everything I thought it would be: On the one hand, you know you can’t solve their problems, but on the other hand, you know you’re making a difference, even if only a small difference.
And this is interesting to note, because this exact realization is precisely what made me feel sad later in the day. You’d think I’d be happy, right? Because I got to serve homeless kids, after years of effort and struggle and doors slammed shut! But, I wasn’t. Because what I saw myself doing, was despising myself. I saw myself despising myself for caring, and for caring so deeply. I understood I cared, and I saw it as a weakness. Why couldn’t I be like everyone else? People talk about the warm and fuzzy feelings they feel when they serve others and volunteer, but that’s not me. I feel instead a pain, a deep pain, and sometimes a self-loathing. Because I realize my caring somehow makes me weak, and because I feel the pain of others. This is why no one wants me to work for them! Because I have too much depth, I can’t actually make a difference, caring is a weakness and I’m too much of a psycho empath!
I also know that part of it was because I was still hurt that so many organizations had turned me down from serving with them over the years. I blamed the fact that I cared. I blamed the fact that I had depth. Depth they didn’t want or need, or care to have. And in all honesty, it still stings. All of it. Finally getting to serve didn’t just magically solve the pain I’d bottled up over the years, of feeling rejected and meaningless to the lives of homeless people, such as homeless kids. I just wanted to do some good, and I wasn’t given the chance. As if wanting that is a bad thing. Or so I’d internalized.
Of course, I don’t actually believe this, but this was the thought that went through my mind after this experience. I asked myself the question, “Why do I care?” I want to answer this question, because in all honesty, I don’t know why I care, except that I care. I feel bad for caring, because I feel like it’s a weakness. I know, I know … it’s not a weakness, but it feels like a weakness, because so many people are free from seeing the pain in the lives of others, and are probably happier, and I want that happiness, but I know my responsibility and my desires are for serving others, and serving the homeless, and serving those in need, no matter what the personal cost is.
It’s ironic, of course, that I’d feel so bad after doing such good work, and finally having a chance to do something I was passionate about, after years of struggle. But the problem is, caring is painful, and what comes with compassion is often pain and deep understanding. Compassion, when you break it down etymologically, technically means, “to suffer with.” And I do indeed “suffer with.” I suffer with because I care and wish for only the best for those who have found themselves in hard circumstances. Perhaps I can relate so well because I have felt my own pains, from my own depth, and I see it as weakness, and I wish I wasn’t weak.
Anyway: A long way of saying that serving was ironic for me, anticlimactic in a sense, in that: I wasn’t proud, or happy, or pleased, and I didn’t feel good. Instead, I just felt sad. Because I’d seen a side of the human condition that I know all too well.
I saw the depth of suffering.