I hopped, not so gracefully, onto the top bunk in a row of many rows of other bunks, all festooned with colored blankets, heart-shaped pillows, and stuffed animals. My bunk was bare besides the plastic covering. I hadn’t requested bedding because I have a sleeping bag and didn’t want to make someone else wash my sheets.
And while I hopped, I heard a quiet question from the bed to my left, “How can you be happy when you have nothing?”
I assumed this was an existential question and paused thoughtfully before answering when I suddenly realized that the voice was directing the question to me, personally.
This made matters even more complicated.
I fumbled, saying something silly, evading the question, and asked her name. Toni. Toni was unhappy, it became clear to me. This was her first night at the homeless shelter, too, but she was not smiling to have a roof over her head like I was. She said she felt helpless, and she was baffled that I could be cheery when she saw me shoving my pack, which she assumed contained all of my possessions, into my assigned locker.
I felt a mixture of guilt and pride, both uncomfortable, both feeling very removed from the truth of my situation. I felt guilty to be using the facilities of a homeless shelter because, when I looked around me, I assumed my fellow dwellers needed it more than I did. It was specifically a women and children’s shelter, and though most women were engaged in laughter and relatively light conversation, their faces were covered in bruises and scrapes. Their babies’ eyes were hollow from need.
I was living according to my choices, and perhaps this was the most appropriate answer to her question, but it’s not the answer that came out of my mouth. I did not know how to answer her question because my mind was invaded by various assumptions about our differences and judgments I had made about what she probably wanted to hear. About what she’d be able to hear. And so I stifled my truth.
I wanted to hold her and listen to her. I wanted to thank her for being who she was, where she was, and to let her know that I was proud of her and her story (which I had elicited while carefully not sharing mine.)
Toni was braver than I was, and I wish I had told her this.
I also wish that I hadn’t judged myself so harshly, convincing myself that I was unworthy of the care they were receiving, or alternately, that I was too good for it. I see now that if I had let go of my fear of not belonging there (I was there after all, and I needed place to sleep, so why worry?) I could have faced her honestly, and I could have opened my heart to my own story. Instead I kept quiet and kept secret, which is a habit of mine. I kept to the safety of the therapist’s role, to the power imbalance of constant questions and no answers. Maybe I was afraid of seeing myself in this same situation without having made the choice to be there. Maybe I truly was afraid that I could be Toni, or any of the other women around me.
I remembered being younger and going to school, where I was sensitive, anxious, and never saw other children for who they were in their hearts, but for how they might hurt me or alienate me. Because of this, I became an alienator myself (which would be an exciting title, if this were a sci-fi film, but as far as I know, it’s not.)
As an adult, I feel that I get chances again and again to learn to be a part of the group, to accept that I am part of this human family, even when I’m discouraged by and rejecting of all the pain I perceive. So while my encounter at the shelter was not exactly successful by my standards, it was certainly a beginning, an opening.
I’m recognizing that this trip offers so much more than new places and faces. It offers me an opportunity to be and express new aspects of myself in every situation, opening more and more to the truth that I am not separate, but I am individual. We are all in this existence together, and I’m resonating with the idea that holding up my end of humanity does not mean helping others to make their lives “better” or “easier”…it means that I live my life fully, with love, and that I be willing to share it.