The Salve of Compassion

Posted: November 6, 2007 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Morality, Self Esteem, Stereotypes

Yesterday I was talking with "Suckerfish" director José Lemus and his wife, "The Shaken Tree" director, Mary Garcia-Lemus, about the some of the barriers that homeless people face as they attempt to regain a foothold that would allow them back into society.

While there are many obstacles that every homeless person faces, perhaps the most debilitating is the assault on their own self-esteem.  

It is difficult enough to have the confidence to believe that you can rise above your current circumstances without having other people treating you with disdain and scorn, calling you names and behaving you as though you didn’t matter. But, that’s what occurs to a person who is homeless. They are seen as less than everyone else. Worse yet, is that many people within the community refuse to even acknowledge your existence.

Author Ralph Emerson in the prologue to his book "The Invisible Man" wrote:

"I am an invisible man… I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Yet, that’s the way many homeless people are made to feel because of those within their community, who would rather that the homeless person went elsewhere. But where? Every other community doesn’t want the homeless either.

It’s true that there are homeless who are content to remain homeless, but just as a coin has two sides, it is also true that there are many homeless who desperately want to escape life on the streets. The experience of homelessness causes them to constantly second guess and question every decision, every choice, every attempt to rise above homelessness. This lack of confidence in making the "right" choice becomes a liability working against them.

Compounded by the seemingly lack of compassion, caring and willingness of the main stream community to offer a help hand, the homeless person begins to see themselves as an outcast, which further results in a feeling of being completely abandoned by the rest of society. This can ultimately lead to the homeless person losing all hope that they may ever have the opportunity to regain a "normal" life. And, as hope vanishes and is replaced by despair the homeless person simply gives up any attempt to escape homelessness.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is quoted as saying:

"The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted."

How sad is it that the affliction of homelessness could be cured – at least in part – and many could be socially healed if we were to simply apply the salve of compassion and caring.

That may be all it takes to make a change in the life of homeless person: that we do not rob them of their dignity; that we make the attempt to help them regain the self-esteem needed to move ahead with their lives.

One physician’s assistant I know told me that the primary rule in healing is:

"First, do no harm…"

But when we refuse to acknowledge the humanity in a person who is homeless, isn’t that what we are doing: harming them?

Perhaps, we ought to take a good look at ourselves and determine just what type of medicine we’re prescribing when we fail to reach out in aid and compassion to those who need our help.

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