By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2012
Allowing another person dignity should not be difficult. It should be second nature to us. After all it is what we too want most. So why is it difficult? Because we fail to understand that the concept of dignity is twofold. It is recognizing that a being has a right to respect and ethical treatment. But also this: it is accepting that a person has the right to choose their own actions. This is the one that challenges us to see beyond our own understanding. It requires us to step through the passageway into the realm of our imagination and suspend those old notions that have served us well. It is difficult because we love those old notions for their predictability and yet in a corner of our minds we know how invigorating risk can be.
Let’s take the notion of sleep for example. For many of us sleep is the activity that we treasure at the end of our day. This is when we feel safe, warm, taken care of. This is where we let our guard down. There is comfort in getting into our pajamas. Even if we have sleep difficulties there might still be a certain level of comfort in the night time, turning- in, shutting-out-the-world routine.
But for people with street experience sleep brings fear. Fear of what might happen when you aren’t vigilant, fear of nightmares. There is no warmth, no security, no letting down your guard, no fuzzy pajamas, and often no sleep. When people who have street experience move into a hospital or supportive care facility what often happens is this: they sleep in their clothes, at times including parka, woollen cap and boots and they sleep on top of the bed rather than under the covers. Even after being in a warm, and to our standards, secure setting for years people continue with this habit. At times people even choose to sleep on the floor when a bed is available. Though this might seem unfathomable for us, understanding that a person needs to do this is allowing them their dignity. We have witnessed staff in hospitals and housing facilities come around to this realization and it is a treasure to behold.
Recently a man on the streets of Kitchener made the 6 o’clock news. It was an unfortunate story based on the fact that the man rejects the charity of passersby. Although the man refuses clothing, food and money, he is nonetheless quite cared for by business owners in the downtown and Outreach workers but on his terms. On one occasion when someone insisted he take a bill they were offering, the man ripped it up. I can only assume he was fed up with people bombarding him and insisting he must take what they offered. The man was offering all of us a valuable lesson. He was forcing us to accept that he would live as he chooses, his decisions would be his own. He took those old ideas of charity and threw them back in their faces. The gain was his own dignity.
Meeting people on their own terms requires us to look deeply into the other, listen to what they are saying and turning off the commentary in our own heads that wants to dictate the answers as to how we all should live. Failure of the imagination underlies our tendencies to judge when faced with people who live differently from us. If we take the time to imagine someone else’s life, a way different from our own, we are led down a path toward compassion. It is the path that holds the potential for wars to be deterred, family and neighbourhood feuds to be diffused if only we could imagine the issue from someone else’s perspective and see beyond the one-sided interpretation.
People are not always accepting of our noise and behaviour at St. John’s Kitchen. It doesn’t fit into their idea of what is acceptable or conventional. But where, I ask you, are people to go when they have nowhere to go? Where would you do your private business if you lived on the street? Where would you drink your alcohol, be intimate with your sweetie, void your bladder, sleep, because all of these activities are illegal on the street and when the street is your home what choices do you have? Street people are constantly being told to move on to another place but even the next place is unacceptable. When will we realize that this is not someone else’s problem?
It is not the responsibility of people living on the street to bend and fit into our limited perception of normal behaviour. What kind of society would require those most vulnerable to be the ones to change? Those of us with a roof over our heads, money in our hands, leading healthy lives that includes friends, family, companions, it is our task to accommodate others. Because it is sheer luck that the roles are not reversed.
Recently an Islamic women’s group came to St. John’s Kitchen. They bought food, cooked a meal, served and cleaned up. Just before they were getting ready to serve one of the women gathered her sisters together. Don’t think you are doing something for someone else here, she told them. You came here today to do something for yourself. Your need to serve, she said, is part of your own spiritual journey. The people in this dining room are helping you fulfill your passage in this life. Make no mistake, she said, about who needs whom.