Someone riding with me in my car yesterday posed a rhetorical question. I’m glad it was rhetorical, though disappointed it was asked with the conspicuous disdain so many carry for the people in their own communities with mental health problems – or in the late stages of drug and alcohol addiction, and the distinguishable toll it places upon their bodies, demeanor – their heart and soul.
These are questions people pretend to ask in order to make a statement – remarks about human beings that reflect a pallor of disingenuousness. A ruse against the appearance of fostering a calculated idea. Speaking without the accountability of ownership. Talking dirt without soiling the breath with the stench of their own intention. This is so often how we speak of those left abandoned by a society suffering its own illness. It is trusted that a certain method of inference and euphemism can politely carry our bigotry, racism, classism – any of our “isms” couched in the etiquette of dog whistles – and other finger bowls of mendacity that seat neatly among ingraved place settings and feigned human concern.
This woman – dehydrated – gaunt – once vibrant, beautiful and full of optimism. You could see where laugh lines once showcased sparkling eyes … now set in deep hollow pockets under a dull haze of isolation and perceived valuelessness. Hope hanging lusterless and worn as her dark wizened skin. The lack of sympathy my passenger seemed to have for her, I found myself somehow having for him – for his depleted humanity. I guess because I hope I never lose the place in me that sees myself behind her eyes. It is the single awareness I fear I might allow myself to repress.
I answered the question he asked of me without really knowing her story. “She had other plans, I can promise you”, I told my passenger, as I pulled up and handed her a bottled water and a five through the window. “What if she buys drugs”, he asked. That is a question I simply ignored. I wonder what any of us would do … with no place we will ever belong.
She isn’t huddled in my entryway with an odor of ammonia in musty deteriorating rags. I imagine she finds it better not bathing anymore, but I can’t be sure. She seemed as though she felt safer unapproachable and unloved than she did with someone looking her in the eye – and yet, I know I saw gratitude. That “thank you” for just seeing me. Knowing I am in here ….
I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I did. But I made a vow a long time ago – to look every person in the eye – especially when saying no to them, when I can no longer hand another dollar or a five.
I believe one thing with my whole heart. If every person were given the basic human dignity of mere acknowledgement … the lives of many would change. But none more than that of those who look at the faces they once avoided – on streets they will never fully know.
Image Credit ~ Laurin Rinder