I Cannot Ignore the Pangs of My Own Conscience Without Harm to Myself (and Neither, I Think, Can You)

I’ve been thinking a lot about homelessness lately. Mostly, this is probably because I’ve been trying to respond to people’s needs with greater generosity. I’ve been trying to really see each person I encounter and to greet each one as I would a friend. I’ve been giving away more money and food, and receiving more hugs, more stories, more meaningful contact with people’s humanity. More grace.

When I allow myself to pay attention, to care, to feel, to share, I feel relieved from the exquisite pain of ignoring human suffering. It really hurts to look away, to walk away, to pretend I don’t see the need in front of me. The pain is visceral, physical – a tightening in my chest and in my throat, a clamping down of my heart. Dissociation from my own vitality. I cannot ignore the pangs of my own conscience without harm to myself (and neither, I think, can you).

When I do respond with attention, with presence, with care, my whole being feels relieved of that pain and dissonance. I am in contact. I am in congruence with my values. I am relating as a human being with a heart to a human being with a heart.

As I do so, I feel the next pain arising: the pain of insufficiency. Less horrible than ignoring the suffering, but more poignant, more tender, more full of feeling. I am alive and present with the truth. Even when I offer more and more, it is inevitably insufficient relative to the enormity of the problem. The insufficiency of my own offering breaks my heart, even as I am being thanked. I think to myself, you shouldn’t thank me for that; it is so little relative to what I am sure you need, my friend. 

This experience has led me to want more information about the enormity of the problem of homelessness. I want to understand what it would take to make systemic changes for the support and benefit of some of our most vulnerable kin. Getting more information won’t, in and of itself, solve the problem, but the problems won’t be solved if we remain ignorant. In the United States, we try to solve too many problems by ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away – or, worse, by criminalizing them.

Yes, let’s criminalize people for not having homes, let’s arrest people who have the audacity to sleep in public, let’s give fines to people who have no money. That’ll fix all of our problems, for sure. Ugh!

I was happy to hear that some homeless folks teamed up with the ACLU to sue the city that passed such entrapment laws and I hope that that movement will spread nationwide.

It is strange to grow up thinking that you live in a bastion of freedom and democracy, only to find that you actually live in a thinly-veiled police state.

We must actively look at what is happening so that we can more effectively advocate for changes to the systems that disempower, oppress, and dehumanize the precious beings we share this world with. Can we throw some dollars at the ACLU, while we’re at it? And give some homeless folks some $5s, $10s, $20s, $50s, or more, and some nourishing food?

Generosity feels really good. I swear. Try it. You might like it.

This is a great article (from about a year ago) giving detail on the state of homelessness in the United States today and how it got there and what we could do to eradicate it.

All the solutions exist. It is not an impossible problem to solve. The support just needs to be mobilized. That’s our cue.