Thursday, November 16, 2006

the reality of perception

I was leaving the grocery store recently when I noticed a man panhandling outside. I usually stop and talk to the men or women I see doing this to see if they are homeless - usually because I can offer some information if they want it, a night in a shelter, a phone number, a connection of sorts. Sometimes they just want a buck, and I have no problem with that either, but I generally try to approach it with the goal of a longer term solution.

I was sitting on the curb talking with the guy about bus routes and shelter options when another shopper came up and handed me a couple dollars, quietly said good luck and walked away.

At first I was taken aback. I immediately thought I must look like shit and then almost said oh, hey, wait, I'm not homeless but I thought that might be an affront to the guy I was talking to, so I simply turned and handed him the money. He smiled and took it and mentioned something about how maybe I could hang out a bit longer.

As I left I was struck by the reactions that brought up in me - a sense of self-consciousness, a smidge of unintended fraud, and above all, the need to explain that I am not what you were thinking. Talk about some heavy lifting in those moments, coming from someone who purportedly spends her time and passion and intellect focused on the issue, on raising awareness to it, to proving that homelessness can look like any of us.

And yet so internally quick to defend that I am not.

It bothered me. Or better said, I bothered me. For practical reasons my reaction was normal, but my need to defend disappointed me. What makes me different? A roof, sure, but otherwise, we share skin and bone and love and fear. A choice here or there, certainly, but any of us can take a wrong turn and find ourselves lost. A battle lost, a lover scorned, a system broken.

We are all them, because we are all us. Next time, I'll just say thank you.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

So true - once you "do the math", we are all closer to it than we think, and honestly I have almost been there before in my life.

The person who gave you the money probably thought you two were a couple. Or if it was a man, thought you were hot - sorry to use a broad brush there, but many guys I know have told me they only give money to women panhandlers.

You did some quick thinking there, dearest, and all to save the person you were sitting with a moment of shame. You're a better person than I am...

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I don't know as much as you do about the issues, but I think mental illness can also be a factor. Lots of people seem to think that you're either mentally ill or you're not, but it seems to me that there is a continuum of mental health and we all go up and down it sometimes. Some of us just go further on the scale. That said, I do frequently call my undiagnosed MIL crazy (who has been homeless, has lived with us for 8 hellish days and a few months later, homeless again, went to a shelter, because the huz hoped that would get her some help but she just got kicked out, for rudeness I think); not to her face, but to others when her latest craziness has really gotten to me. (Sorry, I don't blog about her on my own blog, so it's a bit of release to mention her on others'.)

And I hate those moments when I am surprised and disappointed in my gut reactions. I think it's ok though, when my head comes through in the end, because it just makes us examine those gut reactions.

KC said...

Jen, you are so honest and I love that. It's hard to write about our self-perceived inadequacies, but that just makes you a more human hero.

(thank you)

daufiero said...

Was the other shopper a man or a woman? I'm also betting that (either way) that person felt more comfortable giving the money to a woman.

Rather than looking "like shit," YOU were probably invisible to the person, which is, I guess, part of the problem?

I don't know exactly how you were feeling/reacting, but to me it seems primarily that you just didn't want to give the wrong impression.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting!

If it wasn't for disability payments, I would likely be out there on the street, too. It's a humbling realization because I am a reasonably intelligent person and reasonably intelligent people aren't supposed to become so vulnerable. (That's my unspoken prejudice, perhaps..) Yet, it happens all the time. Intelligent people as well as less intelligent people find themselves in bad situations all the time. It reminds me of the Anatole France quote about the rich as well as the poor being forbidden from stealing bread, sleeping under bridges and begging.

In a culture (I refuse to say "world") that judges the value of human worth by economic status, I'm not a bit surprised that you would have such an internal reaction. Your value as a human being was being stripped away by that perception.

Homeless people experience that every single day, as you know. It's a wonder there aren't riots in the streets.

I think "thank you" is a very good response. :)

Peace to you ~

-chani

Deezee said...

You bring a great voice to the homeless. I live in an area with so much visible homelessness that often in an attempt at emotional self-protection, I turn away.

And I'm not proud of it, but I think part of what makes many of us do that is the need to believe that we are different and thus not vulnerable to ending up on the streets ourselves. Yet you make it so clear that only in seeing ourselves in the faces of the homeless around us will our society put greater effort into eradicating the problem.

I think I will look differently into the eyes of the homeless today as a result of your post.

Anonymous said...

Kindness takes many forms. In all cases, "thank you" is the best possible answer. Lovely post, Jen.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Good point. Are we any different than the man or woman on the street? Are we so different than the CEO of a major corporation?

We all could be one or two catastrophe away from the soup line.

Anonymous said...

I work in the service and civic engagement field - trying to educate people about social issues by getting them involved in volunteerism. It's always interesting the way that we are often the ones that benefit the most from service, isn't it? What a good and thought provoking experience to have had.

Lillithmother said...

Your gift of compassion and love towards the homeless outways anything Jen...never, ever forget that.

Anonymous said...

I think the majority of people would be very defensive in such a situation for the simple reason that everyone sees the homeless, (even when they pretend they don't) and is at some level incredibly relieved that it's not them. Homelessness seems to be a genuine fear for many, even people who seem to be doing quite well. I'm not quite sure why this is... there but for the grace of God perhaps?

Penny said...

Aww, Jen - you were a real life poster-child of the very concept you mean to reconstruct for the general public.

So, take that woman's gesture as a pat on the back. Considering you work with attitudes and circumstances, environments and mindsets, that couple of dollars is probably closest to a tangible product of your labor as you can get.

You are genuine in your hard work, "proving that homelessness can look like any of us."

This woman's conclusion that you were both panhandlers is probably, not exclusively but in large part, due to her summing up the situation by environmental cues: geography or an artifact - the high-traffic location and an overturned cap, rather than the by the clothing or demeanor of the people.

Her freedom from prejudice shows that you and people like you are being heard.

Good Job.

In that particular exchange, a battle was won, a person was challenged and a prejudice was broken.

Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting story. And interesting thoughts about it, too. I admire the fact that you really have your brain *on* (and your heart) to be receptive to incidents like this one.

Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting story. And interesting thoughts about it, too. I admire the fact that you really have your brain *on* (and your heart) to be receptive to incidents like this one.

Momish said...

Self perseption is both a good and a bad thing. I understand your gut reaction, as I see it as a battle with self pride. And, that is perfectly OK!

Why wouldn't you want to defend not only the fact that you have overcome any obstacles to make your way in life, but also, and more importantly, you were sitting there by choice because you were helping!

I also understand your point that circumstances and events change people and we are all just as equally capable of falling victim of them. Yet, the distinction is still there, however fragile and tentative it is, so naturally your instinct is to point out the distinction when confronted. Only natural, I think.

Having worked with mentally ill adults, I know how easy other people mistake and lump into incorrect categories. I was often mistaken for "one of them" when out in a group. I took pains to dress in a professional manner to make that distiction. But, it was also for them as well as me. I was there to help, and if the general public did not see me in that role, I would have failed more often than not.

I hope I am making sense and not just rambling here!

mrs.incredible said...

Good on ya, Jen. Thank you putting it out there. Our perceptions do get the best of us sometimes. They sneak up on us. But good on ya for taking notice and making note. It is this kind of honesty that I adore in you.

Her Bad Mother said...

Wow. Just, wow.

acumamakiki said...

so true sister. it's such a fine line that we all live/walk/breath.

Anonymous said...

It's good to realize that in the world, there really isn't a "them" and "us." We're all them, and we're all us. There are circumstances and choices that make our lives one way or another, and those can change.

I really like that you're thoughtful and reflective and honest, and that you care.

crazymumma said...

A humanizing and humbling moment. Eyes opened even wider than they already were. But you took it and became better for it. I often say "There but by the grace of (choose a diety) go I".

s@bd said...

beautiful thinking.

flutter said...

You are such a lovely soul.

Little Miss said...

I can really relate to this post.

Living in a big city, I often find myself going out of my way to do nice things for people of a different culture, different situation, different background, or different race other than my own... and then I wonder if I should even be acknowledging such a difference.

There should be NO "difference"--because just like you said, we share skin and bone and love and fear. So why then do I continue to do it?

Probably for the same reason next time you'll just smile and say, "thank you".

flutter said...

I do love that you so closely integrate what you espouse to what you live. You are really inspiring

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Wow.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't add anything that hasn't already been said, but I just had to let you know that your writings stay with me throughout the day. You have a gift...

Anonymous said...

I like that line:
homelessness can look like any of us

I volunteered at a soup kitchen a few years ago. A friend who does this asked me one day--out of the blue--if I could make the soup, as he wasn't able get there that day.
I showed up with two cauldrons of vegetarian, organic soups expecting to feed a "bunch of old, homeless guys".
The first in line was a woman and her three kids. A wake-up call for the Denguy.

ecm said...

I love this story...have had moments like this...it puts everything in perspective.

mothergoosemouse said...

Yes. I felt similarly when I was working as a collector for sub-prime auto loans, and sometimes I was ashamed that I felt that way.

sunshine scribe said...

I am asking all of my work colleagues to read your post. I think this is so true and so honest and should be required reading for all.

Girl con Queso said...

Wow. So interesting. I was actually also mistaken for a homeless person last week. Long story, but similar to yours and my reaction was the same. It was so odd. I took me a minute to piece it all together that someone actually took me, Prada wearing professional, for a homeless person. But, actually, I loved it. It was a great reminder to me that we're all the same in this life, no matter the circumstance, situation, outfit. It was an incredible moment for me. I hope I always remember and keep that feeling close.