“Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”
― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”
I heard the muffled knock on the passenger window, but I didn’t look up from the chess game on my phone. Memories rushed back of police officers tapping at my car window with metal flashlights as I tried to sleep in a dark parking lot. But this knock was not the knock of a cop, I thought, still avoiding the source. Five seconds passed. I saw checkmate in three moves. Another knock.
Then I saw her: late twenties or early thirties, black, hair pony-tailed, wearing a coat too light for this February cold. I noticed the assumptions surging to the front of my mind: homeless, addict, wants money. My heart sank, and my head shook almost involuntarily.
—I’m sorry, I mouthed through the closed window, not today.
—I’m hungry and I’m cold, she said, her voice muffled as her knock. She was looking directly at me.
I’ve never been able be one of those people who isn’t willing to listen. Whatever created this tendency in me has over the years landed me in dozens of hours-long conversations with people whose presence and storytelling abilities inspired me to become a writer. People whose stories of altered mental states, trauma, addiction, mystical experiences, train-hopping, and in some cases intentionally living outside the bounds of economy and law inspired me to explore many of those paths in my own life. People whom my mother, an ex-cop, would certainly have tried to steer me clear of.
I could feel in my bones that this was one of those moments where waving the person off with a fake apology and a sympathetic look would break my heart for decades.
She was still talking as I tried to put down the window. The car wasn’t on. So many layers between us, I thought, suddenly ashamed of the car, the iPhone, the expensive jacket I was wearing, the years between my own homelessness experience and this moment. I dropped the phone and searched for an ignition key that didn’t exist. Suddenly perplexed as to how to put down the window, I considered leaning over to open the passenger door, but no, I thought, that would be too much, too soon. Too vulnerable.
After I managed to press the brake, hit the ignition button, wait for the car computer to boot, and press the window button, finally, the window went down—and the music started to bump. There she was, still talking, voice now drowned by the music.
—I asked this other man for food, she said, but he said no, and I asked for five dollars for a daylong bus fare, and I need to leave this place…
—I’m sorry, I said. Not today.
After all that, I was still in reaction mode, not seeing her, not listening to her. The words came out like ash. What if she spends it on drugs, I reasoned. What if she’s lying?
I may have been one of “those people” willing to listen, but how often do I act? I have always resonated with the criticism of people with means and awareness who do nothing to help improve the lives of those with less means. Yet here I was, not even pretending to help by trying to profit from trying to help.
That part of me that wanted to be unique, seen, and respected assumed that I was being manipulated. That victim strategy birthed a deep self-centeredness in me when I was younger, and fostered an inability to see my own privilege or truly empathize with others. It’s a gross little demon that rears its head when I’m faced with an uncomfortable situation that I have the ability to avoid.
I let the demon play for a moment and took a deep breath. The woman was still there. She didn’t seem fazed by my rejection. Maybe she hadn’t even heard it. She was saying something about her living situation. My spidey-senses went off when she repeated that she needed to “get out of here.”
We spoke briefly: she, outside, leaning toward the half-open passenger window; me, buckled in the driver seat. I noticed myself looking for signs of intoxication, mental crisis. I am no psychotherapist but I know altered mental states in my own experience, drug-induced and not. I know that hunger causes its own kind of delirium. My body remembers the violent shakes of hypothermia. I have spent many a day wondering where I would sleep that night.
And, none of those experiences taught me how to be with someone else in those states. Certainly not how to help. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know the right thing to do. I’ve been taught to think so much about everything that I’ve misplaced my ability to listen to my gut.
The caravan of thoughts rolled through my mind: The Dalai Lama says to be kind and compassionate; that is enough. If I were to look to Silicon Valley for answers on how to act, I could probably become a billionaire by developing an app wherein this woman could connect with a million people ready to buy her lunch with a thumbprint. If I were to rely on government and police as role models, I’d probably try to make sure this woman’s toe was wedged under the tire before I drove away.
Sometimes I can feel my friends’ judgment when I give money to people on the street. I’ve learned to not talk about it in social settings: that feeling of my heart falling into the pit of my stomach; the tears that began to well in my delay to open the car window; the fear that, if I opened the door in my rush to hear this woman, she may perceive it as an invitation for something she was not asking for.
Sometimes I do not know how to navigate the space between my privilege and someone else’s lack thereof. But the truth is that I’d rather be lost than avoid the territory.
I offered to help. I said I only had a debit card. The part of me that thought she might use the money for drugs kept me in that moment from remembering that I had a twenty in my wallet. The part of me that wanted to save her got out of the car and awkwardly offered to buy her lunch.
We walked half a block together, toward—where? A deli? A restaurant? I’d taken people who lived on the street out to lunch before, and had found it to be a soul-enriching experience to hear stories from people who were not often heard, to experience them express themselves. Sometimes it was about the food, and other times, the connection.
Which made me wonder, as I asked her name, in what ways was my willingness to help conditional? In what ways did I want to benefit from this? Did I require some kind of personal connection in trade for a few dollars? And what was this need of mine to know and even control what she spent it on?
I remembered Zippy, a woman who approached me one night on the corner of Marcy & Myrtle in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where I lived some years ago. Zippy asked me to buy her baby formula. She was skinny as a rail, dreaded, bedraggled. She told me a story about Jay-Z, how they grew up together. She talked about her baby. She suggested we go into the deli across the street. How do you say ‘no’ to a baby who needs food? I bought her a can of baby formula.
The cashier gave his co-worker a look, held up the can for a moment. The next day at work I learned that baby formula served as a kind of black market currency for heroin.
Zippy got me. That’s the story my co-workers told me. They laughed at my ‘rookie’ move. The money was for drugs, they said, therefore I got scammed, manipulated, sold.
True as it may have been, that story has never sat well with me. What was the difference, really, between giving money to a drug addict on the street and giving it to a corporation? Their respective sales tactics could be eerily similar. The rewards for my action are not. In this culture, if I give money to a drug addict under the auspices that I’m helping to feed a baby and I feel good about that act, I am considered foolish because the “truth” is that the money will go straight to heroin, which is “bad.”
On the other hand, if I buy a tank of Shell gasoline, my car will get me 350 miles down the road, which is “good” because I can go to work, etc. I can accept that I’m contributing to greenhouse gases and mass extinction because, well, I need to go to work.
In the context of material goods, my attachment to how my money might be used after it leaves my hands vanishes. Of course, if I thought every time I bought gas that I was consciously exacerbating a global addiction to a substance that is in every possible way worse than heroin, I might still buy it, and feel bad about it, so often I just don’t think about it.
We reached a crosswalk and stopped. Food and bus fare would be fifteen minimum, especially in this neighborhood.
—What’s your name? I asked, pulling out my wallet.
—I’m sorry that you’re in this situation, I said.
We went into a deli and I asked the cashier for change. Shriana stood a few feet away, looking around. I sensed that she’d done this before. I watched the cashier count bills, and remembered the cashier that night in Brooklyn all those years ago, giving his co-worker a look as he cashed me out for the baby formula.
What did it matter anyway, if Zippy or Shriana or the hundred or more folks I’d given money to since I was a teenager, had all bought drugs with it? I buy drugs. I’ve bought pot, alcohol, psychedelics, cigarettes. My employers have neither known nor cared what I’ve done with my wages. Nor, I assume, are my loved ones particularly attached to what I do with their birthday cards or small gifts.
When I see suffering, I cannot ignore it. Which is partly why paying attention to the news makes me sick. It is also why, 99% of the day, I hide under the cloak of my privilege: the car, the clothes, apologetic looks, the silent mouthing of ‘not today’, which implies that I think that I have other days available to me to worry about how generous I wish to perceive myself.
I believe that Shriana was in a state where tomorrow didn’t yet exist. She knew what she needed and overcame all the shame involved in knocking on the window of a new-looking car in a hip Portland neighborhood, asking this reasonably well-dressed white man for help. I believe that such a brave act requires a presence, vulnerability, strength, and, frankly, vigilance, that overrides fear and self-doubt. One on hand, it resembles the kind of presence that I seek to develop and embody in my own life. Conversely, vigilance is often a fear response, a survival-level alertness that produces high levels of stress. That can’t be good for humans, long-term.
I write this knowing that I myself will never be able to count or understand the myriad layers between Shriana and I: the passenger window wasn’t just a car window, it was a transparent, impregnable force field, like that of a spaceship in science fiction stories. A force field that makes those inside it by definition invulnerable. It becomes the choice of those within to open the window, to breathe unfiltered air, to feel, to listen, and to act.
It hurts to think that there is no easy solution to the growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ The conditions which created this singular situation are deeply systemic, fundamental to the culture of our society. Sure, one often-repeated solution could be to re-allocate one percent of the USA military budget to end homelessness and hunger in this country. Another solution would be to tax a handful of the wealthiest American individuals and corporations in service to the people who helped make them so wealthy. Top-down solutions are easy to think about, especially from a power-under point of view: they can afford it, we might think, and it wouldn’t matter much because they would still be super rich.
Bottom-up solutions are more cumbersome. They require multitudes of people to change their behaviors, and, ultimately, their beliefs. They require dozens of millions of have-nots to reconcile their differences with each other, many of which were created by the powerful in order to retain power.
The theory goes that when enough people make a conscious change in their own lives, it changes the whole system. Back in the 90’s, it was recycling.
Now, according to Greta Thunburg, it’s more radical: stop using fossil fuels immediately. Those are easy ideas to agree with because we all want a healthy planet, but to actually change and sustain those changes seem even more difficult to accomplish, because those whose voices matter most have to pay rent. Most people on the planet live their day to day lives at a level much closer to survival than charitable philanthropy.
In an individualist society like the United States, where ego and money are valued above community and connection, it makes sense that conservative values would take power—they value abundance, and being so entrenched in that value creates an inability and unwillingness to see, for example, that their wealth was built on the premise of keeping a whole lot of other people poor. And it also makes sense that liberal values would appear shiny on the surface and from the podium, because they’re all about inspiring hope in the people—rather than actually serving the people.
What doesn’t make sense to me is how such a fiercely individualist society as ours has devolved into a simple dichotomy: right and left, conservative and liberal, red and blue. It doesn’t make sense to me that, given the American penchant for innovation, we can’t seem to navigate complex political terrain without reverting to childhood playground dynamics. We elected a playground bully to lead our nation. We armed him with nuclear weapons. In turn, he armed white supremacists with permission to terrorize the streets of this country all but protected by a racist, corrupt, and militarized police state. Known rapists have been appointed to our highest courts.
It makes perfect sense to me that the wealthiest, most power-drunk nation on the planet has lost its way. For the past hundred years, the United States has reinforced corrosive attitudes about its own leadership based on scarcity, fear, and comparison to others (“richest,” “most _____,” “freest”), rather than using its resources and influence to lead its people—and thus, inevitably, others—toward a more sustainably whole society.
Nevertheless, the culture is changing: The Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp have ousted thousands of men from positions of power in the most influential industries. The uprising of the feminine in the last few years is unprecedented in history. Nearly matched in its ferocity by a triggered, antagonistic masculine—the wounded boy turned insecure bully—her time has come. It is also time for the masculine not to bow out—as he may fear she insists—but to call on a stronger inner force than violence. He must learn to stand within himself as himself, without pretense or expectation. He must learn to become aware of the ways his culture manipulates him into doing its bidding, into fighting its wars.
In men’s work, we sometimes talk about the archetype of the “warrior,” a term that can be both triggering and misleading. That terminology is used, I believe, to find an audience of those who may not otherwise listen, and also because war offers an accurate metaphor for the path toward greater consciousness. But the so-called battles we must fight require weapons far more effective than bombs and guns.
Teacher and author Joanna Macy once relayed a story about the Shambala warriors. She told how their only two weapons are compassion and insight into the interconnectedness of all beings. The wounded, unintegrated warriors within us—and I’m not just talking about men—have been fighting for so long that we’ve forgotten why, and against whom. We fight ourselves, and in our wounding, project the parts of ourselves that we despise onto others. The more we feed that system, the bigger and more destructive it gets. Thus, war.
This is why I could not rely on any other information but the present moment for guidance on how to show up in that moment with Shriana. I saw only what was in front of me, struggled to fight back the tides of status quo trying to assert itself through my actions, and did what felt most right. In doing so, I may have failed both of us. I cannot know, but I can try to be okay with that not knowing.
James Baldwin said that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s a perspective that makes me grateful for the election of Trump. I say that as someone who has not been terribly and personally affected by that election. The shadow that Trump represents, which would have lurked on even if Bernie Sanders had been elected, is now out in the open. We can see its ugliness, hear its rhetoric, feel its poison. And some of us can choose compassion for it. Not to excuse its behavior, but to understand more about where all that hurt may have come from, and what we can do for our children that may cause less harm for them.
To be sure, things are changing. It may also be true that our species has simply caused too much damage to the earth and each other to survive much longer. Which makes it all the more important for me to show up in small moments, to acknowledge the shadows and demons as they flow through me, and to continue to breathe.
I want to remember what I experienced with Shriana as connection— an empathy, a knowing, deep in my body of what suffering looks like in another human, and make a commitment to refuse the temptation to repress it in the future. But that commitment is optimistic, frail: to feel all of the suffering all of the time debilitates, paralyzes.
Where is the balance?
There’s a lot of talk in activist circles—and, increasingly, outside of them—about self-care and how holding firm personal boundaries can help reduce, or at least slow down—burn-out and compassion fatigue. There is an unprecedented amount of negative stimuli barraging many of us from every direction in our hyper-connected lives that the line, for me, between remaining engaged and becoming a recluse becomes thinner daily. Humans simply have not evolved to take in as much trauma as we do in 2019, and one doesn’t need to be an activist or work in the helping professions to be overwhelmed even by the number of people on the street asking for help.
When I was living in my car all those years ago, sleeping in parking lots and working for pennies, I remember most clearly the generosity of people I didn’t know. To be acknowledged by another human is life-affirming. Those are the things many of us think about as we go to sleep. How connected did we feel that day? To wish them a warm night or a great day may not seem like much to someone who lives in a heated home or sleeps in a warm bed, but it really can mean everything to one person in a moment of hopelessness.
I know too well what it is to numb, look elsewhere, ignore the man on the subway car with the outstretched cup; I know many times over what it is to drive by the bearded man on the Ross Island Bridge eastbound whose laminated military photo hangs below his cardboard sign. I know what it feels like to buy nice warm clothes and delicious food that insulates me from my past experiences of hunger and homelessness. It’s tempting to think of my ability to postpone worry until tomorrow as compensation for my own suffering, to pretend that my experience of warmth and fullness today fills the void I felt years ago.
But I cannot. I want to remember that hunger. I want to remember the cold. I still struggle with the desire to use drugs to tune out of my current reality. I want to remember these feelings because I want to feel connected, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts—because in this age of hyper-connection and information overload, it’s so easy to ignore and dismiss the brave, muffled knocks on the window.