I know what it’s like to be ground down until every want and desire sloughs off and all that remains is survival. I also know what it’s like to be ground down even further, until you break through that false floor of survival and find yourself in free fall. And I know what it’s like to have the open palm of God catch you so softly and lift you so slowly that you don’t even know you’ve been rescued. That’s why, friends, I now find rivers and roads to be inadequate metaphors for life and the passage of time. I prefer something more three-dimensional:
Think of a flight high above a great ocean with dark, chopping waves far, far below. And you travel over it in a basket hanging from the thin strings of helium balloons.
It’s not always as dark and terrifying as it sounds. The sunlight, when it shines, is brilliant, glinting on the churning white caps thousands of feet below. Distant thunderheads creep along the horizon, edged in orange and violet from the setting sun. The stars at night are so bright and so numerous you can hear the voices of their angels singing.
But sometimes your balloons pop, as balloons often do, rarely all at once, but sometimes in rapid succession, and you can feel the wind rushing harder and the dark, churning waves coming closer. You’re not alone, of course, and others nearby sometimes give you their extra balloons to lift you back up again, or at least keep you from falling further. Sometimes you sink low enough that the whitecaps slosh into your basket, soaking everything, blinding you, and suddenly there’s another basket next to yours, a rainbow-striped hot air balloon blotting out the sun, or a flock of small baskets with not many more balloons than yours, and together they tie your basket to theirs and lift you from the waves just before you sink.
But as you lift away, wet and blurry eyed, you notice there are objects on the surface of the waves, riding the dark and jagged swells. People. They float on scraps of long-fallen baskets, some with a balloon or two still tied down, not enough to carry any weight. Some of them seem to have adapted, riding the swells on their backs. Some paddle against the wind for the jetsam of dirigibles flying thousands of feet above, black dots against the blue. You ride higher and higher, and just as the people on the waves are almost too small to see, you notice there are people rising and falling everywhere, though many of them are the same people rising and falling over and over again. And some are attempting to lift others from the waves only to have them slip free or jump from baskets or tear away the strings of the few balloons they’ve been given, splashing back into the foaming swells and flotsam. You tell yourself — as you rise out of sight into the blue, clothes dry and eyes clear — that you were almost one of them, living flotsam, living jetsam. And you vow you’ll never forget and never judge again.
Easier said than done, friends.
The homeless population in Boise, where I work, is small (Idaho usually ranks near the middle of the 50 states), but ironically that makes homeless individuals all the more visible. Ignoring them at streetlight corners takes more effort here because there aren’t enough of them for anonymity. Yes, new faces come and go, but many stay the same, at least for long seasons. “Renegade,” for example, works the intersection of 8th and Front Street, thin as a post despite living off the extra french fries of exiting Five Guys customers, his tattered cardboard sign strapped to the back of his yellow Bell bicycle trailer filled with all his earthly possessions wrapped in a blue tarp held down with over-stretched bungee cords. Just about everyone who spends regular amounts of time in Boise’s downtown shopping district will recognize him, if not by name then at least by sight. Others homeless individuals, who don’t stick around long enough for their names to stick in memory can be found in the same small handful of corners, as if there’s an unspoken agreement between the homeless and the Boise PD marking certain spots as quasi-neutral territory so long as no one uses them often enough for their faces to become memorable.
One of the nameless wave-dwellers stands on the corner edge of the WinCo parking lot, one lot south from Whole Foods (you never find panhandlers at Whole Foods). He stands on the edge of the lane leading out of the parking lot, where cars are forced to make left turns into the five lane boulevard heading east. There is always a wave-dweller here, and the locals know the spot exactly. The WinCo is only two blocks from my office, and I’m walking there on my lunch break to pick up a few things. I see the man on the corner clearly, holding the mandatory scrap of cardboard with writing in black sharpie. I don’t need to read it to know what it says. He looks to be in his forties, and he’s managed to shave often enough to maintain a thick mustache without a true beard. I pick up a Snickers bar on my way out of the WinCo because it’s always easier to start conversations with a consumable icebreaker, and snacks are small enough gestures that few refuse them or expect strings to be attached. I have no cash in my wallet. No Bible tracts. No social services contacts. Just a Snickers bar, and enough experience saying “hi” to the homeless that I’m no longer afraid.
“Hey man, how’s it goin’?” I say, which is my usual opening line.
The man smirks, sighs, grins, knowing I don’t expect an honest, detailed answer because it’s a rhetorical question. He says something about the cold, something about yesterday’s weather and tomorrow’s weather.
“You could probably use one of these,” I say, pulling the Snickers from my pocket.
The man takes it and his face lights up. He starts talking.
For the next five minutes the man takes me from mental and sexual abuse in the nearby shelters to losing friends from hypothermia in the park across the boulevard. It’s only a small window into the man’s life, don’t mistake that, friends. But the window opens wider and wider as he talks and I listen with head-nods and the occasional, “I hear ya, man.” His story is dark and common, and whether it’s all true I’ll never know, but I know he believes every shred of it. I’m sure he has cut his own strings many times and jumped from low-flying baskets with little provocation. But I also know he’s been ground down into the fabric of other people’s cultural assumptions, labeled often enough that he has slowly become what others have always thought him to be, trapped in the same downward spiral as all who spend more than few months in a mental and physical state that has been openly criminalized.
The monologue ends where it began, back on the street corner at the edge of the WinCo parking lot amid the slow rush of eastbound traffic.
“Well, I gotta get back to work,” I tell him. “Hang in there, man. I’ll see you ’round.”
As of this writing, I haven’t seen him since. No one stays at that corner for long, part of that unspoken agreement with the Boise PD perhaps. But a question remains, one that must be asked every time I pass that corner and see a new face and a new old scrap of cardboard:
Am I accomplishing anything?
When I said my goodbyes to the man — who had been kicked out of the Rescue Mission shelter for not paying lip service to privileged volunteers less than half his age, who had lost friends to exposure while surrounded by well-lit buildings venting steam from geothermal heat — I left him with no money. No job leads. No Bible verses. And I took nothing from him, as there’s no profit in the dark and common contents of a homeless person’s ramblings. But something did change hands, friends, something more than a Snickers bar, even though there was nothing transactional about our encounter. The grace of God doesn’t function transactionally anyway, and anyone who says otherwise is selling self-help books or seminar seats. And yet, I left him with something.
For those five minutes, that man on the corner — cardboard sign drooping, no longer catching the eyes and wallets of shoppers merging onto the boulevard — was no longer an abstraction. He was no longer an anthropomorphism of sin or depression or the banality of victimization. He was a human being with a name and a history. You could see it in his eyes the more he talked. It was something he wasn’t used to, something he probably rarely received (or at least believed he rarely received, which has the same effect). For five minutes the waves grew calmer and the white caps ceased their spray. For five minutes his clothes started to dry. For five minutes he rested, regaining enough strength for another hour or two of struggle.
Friends, I believe if someone mistakes drowning for living, it doesn’t mean we should leave them in the water. And so I gave him five minutes of my time. Which to him, I pray, was five minutes of dignity. And with dignity can come the recognition that he suffers not as an animal or an abstraction, but as a bearer of the image of God. And with suffering comes perseverance, says the Apostle Paul. And perseverance produces character. And character…