Some experiences one carries home, and others surprisingly carry one home.
I spent a couple of evenings earlier this week walking my beloved streets of San Francisco talking to homeless veterans. The volunteer project was aimed at matching highly vulnerable veterans with permanent housing and though the specifics, the stories, the illuminating details are all confidential – the experience of deep connection is not.
I did not anticipate the experience to feed me in the way that it has. I underestimated the significance of what sitting on the dirty sidewalks on a windy city night, looking into a pair of eyes and not just hearing but listening to someone whom I would likely have never spoken to otherwise, would have for me. Though this wasn’t a picture into colonialism, Edward Said’s othering and the need to mark a distinction between the Orient and Occident popped into my mind. It isn’t sufficient to create a discourse that distinguishes the east as the other from the west, but among ourselves, there is a demand to nourish the idea of superiority between ‘us’ and the homeless, i.e. the other. The transformation occurred when the rhetoric of this otherness began to dismantle once a connection was established.
I was met with immense kindness and openness when approaching folks. Strangers are reluctant to make eye contact, much less mumble a quick ‘hello,’ yet time and time again I was given the honor to be trusted with painful incidents, happy memories, intellectual banter, philosophizing queries, anger and resentment aimed at internal as well at external souls, and so much more. The amount of happiness exhibited shook me and I found myself being judgmental. I couldn’t comprehend why after everything they’d told me they had experienced since being on the streets they were not cynical, jaded, distrusting of life and those present in it. But the more we talked, the more it became less relevant.
What took precedence was the connection that the sharing stimulated. It wasn’t just the sharing of the physical space, it was the unselfish way in which we gave ourselves to that present moment. A moment where smart phones did not exist, where there weren’t pesky guarded walls, just genuine authentic interaction between two people who externally may appear to have nothing in common, but as the layers come off found that humanity is a super bonding agent. I was humbled at how much in my element I was; how deliciously right this connection felt. The communal effort to understand, to share, to uplift, to show up for your neighbors, to connect – this was what mattered.
At the end of the day, as much as I wanted to intellectualize my experience, it quickly became apparent that this one was marked for the soul. We can politicize over the degree of accountability that the nation has for its people, or talk economic theories all day long, but sometimes it is necessary to relish in simple humanity. Perhaps it is disturbing to have personally gained so much from these interactions, but reminders that prompt an effort to be a better human in this world have value.
On a similar topic, I highly recommend reading The Dinner. May it not only spark a discussion on the controversial issues that it addresses, but may it also provoke a desire to improve our level of humanness.