“I don’t mean to judge, but you don’t seem like the kind of type to be homeless” Said Sam. He picked up my bags, leading me from the homeless outreach center to meet the bus that would take me to the women’s shelter across town. I assumed that he was also homeless, but with his clean cut appearance and bright white smile, he didn’t look like the type to be homeless, either. I realized that the volunteers in the outreach center must not have taken me seriously; as they were no help at all and sent me away sure there was no place in town that would take me in. I felt panicky as I walked back out on the sidewalk. I had come prepared to sleep outside, but I didn’t want to. Before I had a moment longer to fret, Sam greeted me with the assurance that he knew exactly what I needed.
I allowed him to carry my bags; hesitating only a moment when he gestured that we walk through a back alley towards the Workforce Center to use a free phone. He knew I needed to call the shelters and ask for a place to sleep. The friendly female voice, who answered my shaky first attempt, said they did have room and I should come right over. Sam walked me to the correct bus stop, giving me some tips on how to get around. He waited by my side, making small talk, and then hugged me before I stepped on the bus.
I lived at that women’s shelter for 10 months and traveled in circles that homeless men and women frequent, but I never saw Sam again. I felt so completely at ease with this mysterious man in the new city I had just arrived in via a 3,000 mile cross country greyhound trip. Looking back on the way he anticipated my needs and got me on my way to a warm, safe and dry place to stay, I’ve always carried the suspicion that he was an angel in disguise.
No, I don’t look like the type to be homeless or mentally ill. I’m intelligent and civil, clean and kind, and quite a bit of a goody two shoes—though, I dislike the label. That old adage, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” is so utterly true, and yet we all do it; including myself.
I never realized how closed minded I was until the world was closed on me. Being homeless, diagnosed mentally ill and looking so “normal” and having such a “normal” personality, until the illness rears its unpredictable head, tends to close doors on opportunities and relationships. People don’t see the illness; they only see irresponsible choices and a lack of self-discipline and/or ungratefulness for all they’ve given to boost the potential they see in me. About a year after I left the homeless shelter, I obtained a state job and was handed the keys to my very first apartment. I carried my new insurance card to the doctors office and requested that she fix me before I had another episode that caused me to lose my new found stability and all the things that caring people had helped me to establish for myself.
There’s no fixing what’s not broken. Following a slue of agonizing side effects caused by medication cocktails that robed my life of nearly two and a half years. I could see that my diagnosis didn’t fit on me. I began to challenge the notion that I had a problem at all, but that instead I just do life differently than the American culture allows. When I try to fit in with the “normal” world around me, I become exhausted, sick and eventually will totally crash. It’s like putting diesel in a gasoline engine. The car may get you from point A to point B, but not efficiently and will likely ruin the engine in short time. We wouldn’t expect our gasoline engine to accept diesel fuel, and yet we expect that all makes and models of individual people will function in the same way.
Three years after I received the keys to my very first apartment, I handed them back. I sold everything I could get a dime for and then found myself jobless and homeless, again. This time I had a purpose in mind. I was going to find out how to do life my way and succeed. Though they cared for me, many of my friends did not support my decision and ignored the fact that two and half years of being improperly medicated left quite a financial wake. If I hadn’t made the choice to leave my job and my apartment on my own, I was going to be fired and forced out. Doors slammed on me that summer; the force opened new windows in my mind.
I finally found out who I am and it was nothing near to what people assumed I was or what I was trying to become in my desire to please the masses. If this was my one person experience, I was sure that there were so many others fighting the same losing battle to fit in. I started to look for them and was challenged on every front of my belief system, values and morals. I saw people fighting the battle with addiction, gender identity, abuse, apathy, sexual orientation, depression, true mental illness, tragic medical illness, grief, self image and eating disorders, spiritual identity, homelessness, and irrational fears. I could no longer look at these people and see only their obvious “strangeness” (that is as opposite to “normalness”). What I saw was human beings trying to fit the American bill that only allows for one type of personhood. I was filled with compassion for them, and for myself.
“Be kinder than necessary for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The checker who ignores me at the grocery store, the car in front of me driving at an annoying 5 miles under the speed limit, the stern expression on the face of a man passing by me at the gym all represent battles to me; real human sweat, tears and blood that is spilled for the sake of attaining some semblance of unanimity that crushes individual freedom. That is, ones freedom within her own self; to be her own self, to do life her way and succeed in ways that are meaningful to her. I cringe at the way I would return this other person’s sourness with equal sourness of my own. I only added to the number of the enemy surrounding them instead of offering a kindness that might have fell one of their advancing giants.
I know, because I’ve experienced the judgment, the closed expression, the passive rejection of a cold shoulder. Haven’t, you? What I know to be true today, that for years was hidden within my own pointless battle , is that what other people think of me, does not matter. But what I think of other people, matters at a tremendous level to do damage…or to do good. I have two people to please, God and myself. If I please God and myself the effect I will have on other people will be eternal. I cannot please God or myself if I am uncompassionate to those who appear to be different than me. I cannot please God or myself if I am manipulating who I was created to be in order to please other people. Therefore, my battle to fit in can be conquered by setting about pleasing God and myself. Over simplified? Maybe. True? Very. Easy? Not.
It’s hard to stop caring what the people you care for think about you, excruciatingly hard. It’s sometimes hard to not care what a stranger thinks about you. I believe the human heart was made to be in close relation with other human hearts. It’s more natural to cling to what we can see, feel, and that stands right in front of us, than it is to cling to an unseen God or the self that resides inside our being. But freedom is found apart from the approval of people. Freedom to be ones self, mightily and happily, comes out of approving of ones own personhood and knowing that you are approved by the One who created you the way you are. I had to approve of myself before I could approve of another. In fact, allowing the freedom to be my true self, is steadily erasing the inclination to be another person’s judge at all. And I have found love for the likes of people I would have never associated with when trying to be wholly “American”. Homelessness and closed doors are difficult battles. That’s true. But for the one who is truly free, no circumstance is dire, and no enclosed space a prison.