When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity … and your own.
I came across this impactful quote from Rev. Murray Powell in my reading recently. In fact I’ve been thinking about it for months, and it has caused me to contemplate its deeper meaning. At one level, supporting those who are homeless and finding solutions to homelessness is important to me. At another level, I know I’m also one who may default to looking away and I know that the source of it is a combination of not being able to help immediately and a healthy dose of feeling guilty that I am fortunate enough to have a stable home.
It also caused me to start processing this concept at a different, more general level than homelessness. I started thinking about where else I “look away” from what is in front of me. It occurred to me I do this many times a day.
- Averting of the eyes from a stranger on the sidewalk
- Not walking by someone’s office because I haven’t done something
- Changing my path to avoid someone hard to talk to
- Keeping my head down working when someone comes by my office
- Simply just walking by because I don’t know what to say.
I think the parallel to relating to homelessness is very appropriate. When I look away, it is more about me than the homeless person. Sure, the homeless person may have difficulty looking at us as well but I can only assess what is going on for me when I look away. I may make up stories about how that person doesn’t try to get a job, or that they have problems I don’t want to deal with or that I’m in too much of a hurry. I may tell myself I feel unsafe or that I don’t have enough time to stop and engage.
But I know those aren’t the real reasons … the truth. The truth is I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know how to relate. I have shame that I should do more to help. I feel guilty that I have while they have not.
So I’ve decided to face these feelings within myself and experiment with my relationships with the homeless. I’ve found great reward in short conversations as I remove my sunglasses, look the man in the eye and ask how is doing. I love the feeling of wishing another human a good day. I feel good about leaving some change, but I also feel good about not averting my eyes and instead say honestly that I don’t have anything for them today and again wishing them well.
Of course there are risks in this as well. I’ve been sworn at and called the devil incarnate among other things. But it is up to me to understand that I can’t do anything about the reaction, I can only know that I am in charge of feeling good about what I do.
Is that any different for any of our other day-to-day relationships? We are either comfortable with the situation or we are not. We can decide to engage in any relationship we want to or avoid it. We can always give that relationship the best of ourselves. And there always be risks of doing so.
My opinion is that it is almost always worth engaging with others. At the very least, it creates a sense of humanity within me. I feel connected. I feel like I am giving something meaningful to others, even if it is as simple as acknowledging the other’s existence. At a higher plane, I actually have a hope or perhaps a dream that my engagement will also encourage others to do the same, and that will at worst result in a greater circle of human relationship for me and at best will have a ripple effect extending that circle out from others as well.
Here are three levels of connection that we can use to develop strong relationships anywhere in our lives:
Make eye contact
Looking someone in the eyes is the root of human relationships. Step one is letting someone know that you see and acknowledge them. In its simplest form this can be a passing glance with a stranger on the street (including a homeless person). For a more meaningful engagement with someone its hard to imagine it feeling comfortable without a good amount of eye contact, particularly at significant moments within the engagement. Eye contact, or the lack thereof, contributes greatly to the degree of trust in the relationship between two people.
Create a space for the relationship
With eye contact, let’s make sure we send the right message with our words, our body language and our expressions. The ideal is that both parties sense an equality between them, and that equality is based on safety and trust. While words are important, it is even more important that we mirror our words with our body language and the emotions on our face. Humans process emotional queues many times faster than words, and we aren’t always conscious of the impact of that processing on us. Smile, speak gently and use open body language like facing the person directly and uncrossed, loose arms. Use all your powers to let the other person know that you are present and interested in them.
Listen actively and give freely
Everybody wants to be heard. While that also includes ourselves, we’re not in control of whether the other party is really listening to us. If we are to help build a relationship, we need to do our best to listen. Here’s a beautiful phrase that will help us think about listening in the right way … “listen for the other person’s brilliance” Don’t focus on us … focus on them, and when we’ve heard their brilliance play it back so they know they have made an impact. It may be the greatest gift we have to give someone … our full attention focused on them and what they are saying. If we were to take it one step further, listen for one thing the other person wants or needs that it is in our power to give. It might be a compliment, it might be a good question or it might be a more concrete contribution like an offer to help, a donation, etc. Or it might just be a heartfelt “it was really nice talking to you and I hope you have a great day”!
As I wrote this I was conscious of risks I might be taking, but I was also certain of my own capabilities to sense and measure risks and know which relationships might not be for me. The other thing I was aware of is the great rewards that are there for me if I do engage meaningfully with others. There is also that hope that by doing so I’ve added a little bit of joy to each person I’ve engaged with and encouraged them to take a few risks themselves!
The ultimate revelation for me is this! When I do this consistently I feel better about me! It feels great to be connected! How about you? What’s your experience?