Take a deep breath, count to ten, and tackle each task one step at a time. Linda ShalawayThe stories we tell on ourselves are telling. In a homeless shelter, the stories people tell are replete with anger and fear, frustration and worry, sorrow and grief. They are stories about steps taken and retraced, again and again and again. They're tales of tasks tackled and discontinued as the mounting belief that nothing changes, nothing ever does begins to outweigh one's capacity to take a breath without feeling each breath will hurt more than the last.
It is the challenge of homelessness. It saps you of energy, focus and even sanity. Homelessness drives you crazy.
Yesterday, as C.C. and I drove along a street en route to pick up my mother, we waited at a corner for a young man to cross. He stared at our car. Stared at the crosswalk. His arms hung loosely by his sides. Each one twitching independently as if attached by strings, pulled by an unseen puppeteer.
We waited, silently witnessing this man's angst.
He looked at us. Scowled and stepped into the crosswalk in front of us. Unsteadily he began to navigate his way to the other side of the street.
The crosswalk cleared, we turned the corner and drove on.
This was not unusual behaviour to see in this neighbourhood. Someone so high they look like they will fall down.
We were a few blocks from the shelter where I work. On the other side of the river from it. It is an area where fear has begun to heighten as the construction around the shelter on the south side of the river, has caused a migration of 'the homeless' across the river.
"Don't feed the bears" one article in the community newsletter espoused. "They'll just keep coming back."
I phoned the man who wrote the article.
"Are you going to yell at me?" he asked when I told him who I was.
"No." I replied. "I'd like to understand what it is about your fellow human beings in distress that causes you to equate them with bears," I said.
"These people are animals," he replied. "They're unpredictable. Dangerous. Territorial. See, humans and bears don't mix well. If you're camping, you don't leave food out to attract bears. In our neighbourhood, we shouldn't be leaving bottles out or giving the animals change. It will only keep bringing them back to forage."
It's not only homelessness that drives people crazy. Intolerance and narrow-mindedness can do it too.
"The only thing I regret in my article," he told me, "is I included the homeless under the umbrella of 'bears'. I really just meant pan-handlers, bottle pickers, junkies and addicts. They're animals."
I wanted to hang up. To scream at him that they were all human beings. Every single one of them. There are addicts who are homeless. Addicts who are housed. Bottle pickers do communities a service by cleaning up debris.
"They can have the bottles lying in parks and on sidewalks," he replied when I mentioned about the public service bottle pickers provide, "but they shouldn't be in laneways rummaging through garbage cans. They scare people. Just like the bears."
I took a breath.
To affect change I must take it one step at a time.
"Why don't you come into the shelter for a tour," I asked him. "I'd love to have the opportunity to show you around."
"I don't see the point," he replied. "I don't need to understand any more than what I do about what you do. I think it's great you want to help the working poor and those who are truly homeless because of mental illness or being down on their luck. I don't see why you have to harbour criminals and addicts and junkies."
Because someone has to. Someone has to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Someone has to provide them safe harbour until they can find their way again.
Someone wrote back to his article in the paper. "I think it's unfair to the bears. You shouldn't demean them by calling these lowlife 'bears'. The real bears deserve better."
One breath at a time. One step at a time.
I cannot change the world. I can change my world by changing how I respond.
I breathe. Intolerance is a learned response to fear. Ignorance is an opportunity to teach.
I breathe and let go of my judgements. I breathe and step into creating opportunities for understanding to grow.
I can't change this man's perspective. I can change how I reply. Ignorance will not be enlightened by ignorance. Truth enlightens darkness.
Giving into the belief I cannot affect change in this man's perspective gives me little hope of enlightening the darkness of his thinking with truth.
Believing that I can affect change creates the opportunity for light to shine, even in the darkest minds of prejudice, intolerance and ignorance.
I breathe again. Freely now. Deeper.
I am not powerless. I am powerful beyond my wildest dreams. Beyond my wildest imaginings.
I am wildly powerful. Just like bears.
Perhaps, I am a bear too!