Working in a homeless shelter has led to a lot of interesting experiences and observations. Four months in I feel like I could write a book on the subject. Maybe that book will be written someday, who knows. But for the time being, I thought I’d herald my return to blogging with some observations about our perceptions of other people’s needs.
I came across this odd phenomenon through working with the homeless, but honestly I’m noticing it now everywhere. I’ll start with a fairly inocuous example: some guests needed winter clothes. We had a grant for after-hours care to provide them with winter clothes. A discussion arose over how we’d go about meeting that need. Do we take them to Wal-Mart? Sears? Macy’s? The high-end resale store downtown? There’s a limit to how much money we can spend, but we want them to have good things. We also want to demonstrate that one should think critically about how one spends money. Is anyone noticing the problem, yet? It’s a little sneaky, but somewhere in the conversation, we went from talking about meeting the guests’ needs to talking about changing them. We want to change them, but honestly they don’t want to be changed. Is there really anything wrong with buying a coat from Wal-Mart (where all of our guests are comfortable shopping and feel at home and unnoticed) when you’re on a budget and are hoping to get pants and sneakers too? Maybe a middle class person would approach the problem from a different angle (wanting the coat from Macy’s and hoping they could find it gently used at the resale store thus allowing them to get jeans and sneakers, too) but the fact that a middle class person would approach it from a different angle doesn’t mean that the choices made by a person in poverty are inherently wrong. In most cases, the choices made by a person in poverty are made from a survivalist standpoint. I need a coat, now. I need a CHEAP coat, now. I need a cheap coat, now, and the bus stops in front of Wal-Mart so I won’t have to bum a ride. No one in Wal-mart will notice that it’s mid-November and all I have to wear is a mini skirt. Score. I am shopping at Wal-Mart.
The internal dialogue that guides my choices isn’t even on the radar for them, so why judge them and try to force them to change based on my own experiences? Just because my experiences are different and were fulfilling to me, that doesn’t mean that their experiences are worthless or ought to be devalued in favor of inserting my own will.
Faithful readers- you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the normal tone of my blog. Hopefully that last line reassured you that the old Lindsey is still here plugging away. See, we all have experiences. Many of us have a lifestyle and worldview that is fulfilling to us. Some of us want to spread our contentment with our choices by trying to force other people to make the same ones.
We really are very silly creatures.
If I, as a person who once experienced poverty but is making a successful transition to “middle class”, try to force my lifestyle and choices on the homeless, I’m making a huge mistake. I can model my own happiness, but if I try to force my hand I alienate the people I’m trying to help. The same thing goes for Christians trying to evangelize to people who really don’t want to hear about God’s love (but could maybe use a free ham for Christmas or help fixing their car) and heterosexuals who decide that what lesbians really need is to hear how awesome the penis is.
Seriously, folks- we can model good choices all we want. That’s life. You can radiate your own happiness. But don’t assume that your brand of happiness will taste the same to everyone else. For some people, it’s going to taste awfully bitter.
And that’s okay.