Empathy and homelessness

Photograph by Steve Ryan

Photograph by Steve Ryan

I find it ironic that the day I was asked to interview for an internship with a women’s homeless work program, I was also notified that our lease was not going to be renewed. I am now homeless too. I can go to my interview and say, with all honesty, I know how the clients of the program feel. I currently face the dilemma of finding affordable housing based on my income. The gap between the wealthy and poor is widening with fewer and fewer in between. Finding a home that is within the range of our income that will also fit my family is difficult. It is one of the reasons I detest moving. I have other reasons, though.

I hate moving. I hate everything about moving. Come to think of it, I dread even thinking about moving. I would rather keep all my things in a box, in anticipation of my next move, rather than put things away. Of course, I would be unable to use these things, but that is a small price to pay when you consider the chore of packing it all up again. It all seems quite pointless. If I move to a rental, I must face the dread of moving again, as it is inevitable.

I am reminded of the George Carlin standup routine in which he talks about “stuff.” We collect our “stuff,” which then demands that we buy (or rent) bigger places to hold all our stuff. Once we find a bigger place, we go out to buy more “stuff” to fill the empty spots, thus leading to a situation where we need to find a bigger home to hold the ever-increasing amount of “stuff.” It is an endless cycle. If we could just detach from our stuff, that might make this whole process a little easier.

Apparently, that is a very hard thing for some people to do. One can find conclusive evidence of this by exploring the majority of garages in the United States. Most will look like mine. We moved from a two car to a three-car garage, yet our cars have never parked in the garage. It is too full of stuff. So why do we hold on so tightly to our stuff? Maybe it is to dupe ourselves into believing we can prevent loss.

I know of very few people who manage to remain in their rental homes for longer than a few years. My kids seem to think of this as a grand adventure. I would love to share their enthusiasm, but I know there are few locations that will allow us to bring our domesticated goats. (We bought them to eat the weeds in our current location. The property was too large to weed whack, and they do a much better maintenance job that I can.) I know my children will feel the loss of their pets acutely, especially now that we have a few baby goats, if we are forced to choose between a new home and the goats. Some losses are just harder than others. This is worse than losing the home.

And yet, I feel reluctant to share this with some of my close friends, as it pales in comparison to some who have lost their children to death. One friend just lost his son this past week. It was a tragic accident that might have been avoided, but choices were made and the consequences were what they were. It seems that loss is something that is built into the system, and I must question why this is. Why does loss seem to be so integral to the experience of living?

My spiritual side is inclined to explore the unknown and unproven belief system I have espoused, but that does not seem to help my children much. It hurts, and the words just do not placate the pain of loss. We live. We become attached. We must eventually say goodbye to our “stuff.” It all seems so pointless.

I suppose Nietzsche may have been right. Life does seem very futile, unless…

…Unless you consider the purpose of experience to train the soul to see that which is beyond the physical. In my own situation, my experience of suddenly finding myself home-less could be a valuable experience to relate to others once I have landed the internship. The idea of encouraging a woman with children to have continued faith and perseverance seems to carry more credibility when it comes from a person who has trodden that road before and lived to tell the tale. The only way to gain that credibility is to experience the situation for myself, then consider all the emotions and important lessons I have learned.

One is that goats, while wonderfully hypoallergenic, are a misunderstood animal by landlords. Letting them go prepares me to let go of my children, whether through death or maturity. Another is that “stuff” can become a burden and ceases to have the same value as the basic physical need of shelter. The experience will, inevitably, alter the manner in which I approach a homeless client. With any luck, I will pass through this experience and remember the feelings of despair and panic I felt, knowing I may have to lose my “stuff.” I will remember feeling disoriented in my daily routine. I must adapt to a new routine, as my clients face daily. The uncertainty of not knowing where I shall shelter my children, or the semantics of transitioning from what I call “home”; of knowing where my children will go to school; of feeling helpless at finding a new home that meets all our needs are anxieties that the homeless population encounter daily.

In light of all this, it makes sense that Divine Providence has decided to offer me this experience. It seems reasonable. It can make me a better and more empathetic psychologist. Now, if I can just decide which books to take and which books to store, I should be ahead of the game.

— Maria Taheny

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