As a fundraiser for people who are experiencing homelessness, I have faced a quandary. Why is it that normal, rational, informed, intelligent people have such a hard time getting their head around homelessness? And by the way, I am, some days, one of those normal, rational, informed, intelligent people. Perhaps I am a little further along than many on the subject of homelessness but farther behind on other subjects. But even I sometimes turn away when I drive up to a man or woman holding a cardboard sign by a street corner. I look down and to the right (their face is usually up and to the left.) I pretend to be looking for something. Anything but eye contact.
Part of the reason I avoid eye contact with people who are, for this time in their lives, experiencing homelessness, is that always, ALWAYS, the eyes I see behind the hands holding that sign, are very, very human. They are like mine when I sneak a glance in the mirror to double check the tremendous success of my outfit. “That shirt goes perfectly with that jacket…well done Charles ‘Versace’ LaFond. Well done. You look great today. Nice shoes too by-the-by.” But if I linger in the mirror, I see more. I see what I do not want to see. I see eyes that are very, very human. Soft. Disappointed. Afraid. Regretful. Wary of being hurt more and more and more. I have eyes just like “those people” about whom we speak with a “tut, tut” in our tone. So, I look away from the man with the cardboard the way I look away from my own image in the mirror; I look away so as to avoid the humanity.
I do this because I have a story in my head that this person, experiencing homelessness, has failed. I hold a story in my head like many stories I have long written and stored in my head like some great Vatican Library in my body – old, elegant, dusty, silent, and full of secrets and lots and lots of lies. I hold the story in my head that that homeless person has failed at life and so, does not deserve my money. Sure, I know that many people experiencing homelessness are just the victims of a brief few months of misfortune and that with a little help they will get back on track. But then there are “those others” (so the story continues in my head) that are just addicts or mentally ill and so “hopeless cases” and “a bad investment of my money.” When I think of “them” the soundtrack of my live shifts to minor chords. I “hold the story” that if I give to THEM, it will be poor stewardship of my money. I hold the story that they have chosen, and can’t help but choose, paths which are failure-paths and that my money to THAT person will just be spent on…well, there is a list in my head.
The problem keeps returning to their eyes. Eyes like mine. Just like mine. What do I do with that? A quandary. If their eyes were just menacing, evil, shiftless, well then, easy-peasey, I could have these two groups of people in my head (the good homeless, who just need a hand, and the bad homeless who are a waste of my money.) I am an American and a Christian. I love to label people. It’s what I do to feel in control.
But something clicked in me yesterday…an awareness…a connection I have never really made before today. It was a connection made when listening to one of my saints – Brené Brown, the shame researcher and author. She reminded me that we all live with what she calls our “sh#tty first drafts” in our heads. If you are offended by that language then insert a different word like “stormy first drafts.” Our brain needs to be able to fight, freeze or flight when we are upset by something. It is a reptilian brain in a modern time and a modern brain three sizes larger than it was when the amygdala was”hired” by biology says Brown. We all write these “stormy first drafts” (first coined by Ann Lamott) in our brains to help us to categorize and marginalize what upsets us. These drafts are full of lies. They are conspiracy theories, Brown says, which are simply stories with hastily filled-in bits where we have gaps in data. But they are a carefully spun set of lies we tell ourselves to be able to nicely package and store things in our library as good or bad, save or dangerous.
What Brené Brown asks us to do is to go ahead and write “the stormy first draft,” but then realize that it is probably full of half-truths and lies which have filled gaps in our knowledge in order for us to make sense of something and in order for us to end up being right, clean, easy and virtuous in our own brains. If I decide that that homeless person is an addict or mentally unwell, then I can excuse myself for avoiding eye contact and driving off without lowering my window or without writing that pledge to Heading Home or one of a number of other agencies caring for those experiencing homelessness. If I draft a story about them knowing NOTHING about them, then I am stuck in that draft. BUT. But, if I suspend my temptation to play God by pretending I KNOW what made them and keeps them homeless, then I can look into those eyes and begin to see their humanity from within mine- no matter what the cause of their homelessness may be.
It is ok to look at a situation, any situation, and write a “sh#tty first draft” about it. We do it all the time, we humans. The worst horrors have been visited on people because groups of people write sh#tty first drafts (SFD’s for short) about groups of other people…the church’s SFDs about heretics, the German SFD’s about Jews, the American Southern SFDs about African Americans, the rich Americans’ SFD about poor people, the 14th century theologians’ SFDs about people who think the world is round. Drafting and then believing our SFDs is what we do – but to our peril. It is what we reptile-brained-people do. But to pretend those SFDs are not lies…that is the danger.
The art of life is to see those sh#tty first drafts for what they are. Lies we made up to feel in control. The art of life is to learn that we make them, learn how to let them go, learn that we do not know what is going on in other people’s lives by glancing at them, learn to roll down that window. Learn to make that pledge. Learn to be humans and not God. Learn to look into the mystery of another human’s eyes and linger there a bit.