The other day as I was walking to the bus stop I made eye contact with a guy standing in a doorway. Because I made eye contact he started to speak to me. I didn’t fully hear what he said (because I had headphones in maybe, or perhaps because I was caught up in my own world of troubles), but the implication was he needed something from me. Without even fully hearing him, I instinctively shook my head apologetically. But I was caught off guard. Partly, I think, because he was young and his eyes were bright: he could have been a classmate of mine if he’d been a bit cleaner and a few blocks down the road. And partly because he didn’t let me off the hook. “You try living this way,” he said part in words part in gestures.
And I kept walking.
On the bus I couldn’t shake him. The look in his eyes was so recognizable to me because I suspect I often give it myself when I encounter someone of obvious means. “You have so much,” I think, “And here I am, knowing each meal I eat sends me further into debt and that much closer to the poorhouse in old age. How nice for you that you can pull out your wallet without a thought.” I am proud and I am dismissive. And I am afraid.
Out the bus window I saw a shopping cart full of clothes fortressed by paper bags and cardboard boxes. I saw two men setting up sleeping quarters in a series of doorways that belonged to a temporarily vacant building. Inside I squirmed.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I should do and how I should feel when I walk by a homeless person on the street. Do I ignore them? It’s pretty customary to ignore strangers here, so it’s one option. Do I make eye contact? There’s something in me that needs to acknowledge the humanity of someone I meet this way, and ignoring so often feels like a denial of that humanity. Do I offer money? I feel poor myself, but still I eat every day and sleep somewhere dry. Isn’t there something better and more helpful to be done than giving some spare change? That’s what I learned when I studied poverty and development.
I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking that I need to come up with some sort of temporary solution because asking all of these questions every time I see someone on the street is so tiring. And so very uncomfortable. If I just came up with an answer I could stop thinking and fall into whatever justification I have named. It would be such a relief, and I have so many other things to feel uncomfortable about right now.
But then the thought struck me: shouldn’t homelessness make me uncomfortable? Isn’t the discomfort the thing that tells me something is not right?
So here’s a solution: My discomfort can be offered as a prayer of protest and a prayer for justice. In allowing myself to feel, rather than shutting myself off, I am joining in our common humanity. I am in such a small, brief way participating in the passion of Christ.
And yet. . . If I call this a solution, if it’s thing I turn to whenever I feel discomfort then I’m not really offering my discomfort as a prayer, I’m praying as a way to rid myself of discomfort. Something about it reminds me of this ad I saw once for a backpack that had a pocket built-in for the express purpose of carrying around a granola bar to give to the next homeless person who asked for help. Is this a cool idea that helps me think beyond myself in small, everyday ways, or is it simply a gimmick to downgrade my guilt enough to sell me something new? I grow weary of the latest trend to deconstruct any and all attempts at responsible purchasing, and yet I am wary of the capitalistic system that offers us (false) solutions for all our discomforts. If I pray to ease my discomfort am I paying into that same system?
At this moment, the best I can do is to challenge myself to hold my discomfort. If I grow comfortable, I will stop growing; and if I stop growing, I will never find my way towards a more just way of life. For now, every time I am confronted by someone else’s need (and my own desire to escape it), I must simply allow myself to feel. Maybe I won’t pray in the face of discomfort, but perhaps the holding of my deep unrest will in itself be prayer.