Plague of Discomfort

September 19, 2016

Marc is the only case manager at Earl’s Place, helping all 17 men to get to their appointments, set and achieve goals, and find permanent stable housing to transition out to when it comes time for them to leave. During the discussion we had in the common area, I talked to everyone about Just Say Hello and why I think the message is so important. Marc said, “The one thing I’ve never understood is why people treat homelessness like it’s a plague, like it’s something they might catch…I’ve been trying to answer that question for decades, and I still don’t understand it.” Why the stigma? Why the hatred? Why the fear? He asked me if I had an answer.

I don’t… not really. But I do have a few guesses, and I shared my favorite with Marc.

In Rising Strong, sociologist and shame researcher Brené Brown talks about how in church one day, her pastor was speaking about a fundraiser for the homeless when he said, “When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.” In that moment, Brené said she felt a flush of shame: “He’s talking to me. I look away.” She talked about being unsure why she felt so deeply uncomfortable whenever she was confronted with homelessness. What was it about that interaction that so deeply unsettled her, causing unease, guilt, and then anger and judgment? She didn’t know.

For several months she considered this question, searching into her interactions with those who were homeless and her emotional reactions in those moments. Finally, Brené had a breakthrough, but it was a tough realization to come to: “The real reason I look away is not my fear of helping others, but my fear of needing help… How can we be truly comfortable and generous in the face of someone’s need when we are repelled by our own?”

For me, this is the heart of the matter. I told Marc this story, and that I think this is why as a society we treat homelessness like it is a plague that we might catch. We are so uncomfortable with our own need that we cannot hold space for the need in other people. The American story of the lone ranger, the pioneer, the individual who is responsible for himself and goes it alone and needs no one, is so ingrained in us that we are ashamed of our own need for help, for connection, for community, for support. We don’t want to admit that there might come a time when we wouldn’t be able to survive without the help of other people, and because we are so uncomfortable with the idea of our own need, we turn away in shame, disgust, and fear from the need in others.

In reality, we all need… we need connection, we need support, we need community, and we need help from our friends, from our family, even from strangers. We need each other. But when we are uncomfortable with that need, it makes it so much harder to be confronted with the very apparent need of others as we go through our day to day lives. That need, looking us in the eye, seems like a bit of a slap in the face as we try to deny our own need, and it makes us feel a myriad of feelings… guilt, shame, anger, judgment, irritation, and deeply unsettled. Because we also feel empathy. We see the person there, and we want to help. But instead, we look away.

If you’ve noticed these feelings come up, you are not alone. In fact, you are in the majority. It’s completely normal to feel unsettled when we see someone in front of us, in need; the vast majority of us do. Lend yourself some compassion when those feelings come up, but don’t allow those feelings to stop you. I promise, if you can push yourself past that moment of uncertainty, fear, and discomfort, challenge yourself to say hello, make eye contact, and find the person in front of you, you can replace all those feelings with a sense of gratitude for the moment you just experienced with the beautiful human (in need) in front of you.

Maybe we can even help shift the whole society away from seeing homelessness as a plague that we need to run from.

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