Self Absorption and the Homeless

One of my friends regularly tells me I’m too self absorbed, which is probably a fair point. I think about myself a lot.

However, one thing I’ve noticed is that often the people accusing me of being self absorbed seem to be suffering from a similar affliction themselves. In a way, it would make sense – the most self absorbed people would be the most annoyed about not getting as much attention as they would like in a conversation. They also may be the least likely to see that, sometimes, people have good reasons for being self absorbed.

One time I tend to be very self absorbed is when I see homeless people on the street. There are a lot of homeless people asking for money where I live, and when I see them, I will often go out of my way to walk out of their line of site so they will not see me. Sometimes, I will pretend like I didn’t hear them talk to me so it won’t be “awkward,” even though deep down we both know I did. Or, I will dismiss them with a quick “no, I’m sorry” or just give them a dollar and quickly get on my way. I feel afraid when I see them in the street, even though I know they won’t hurt me. I’m afraid of the confrontation that may ensue.

And I know that, more than money, often what they just need is a little recognition. One of the most painful things, I’ve been told, about being homeless it that people just ignore you as if you were completely worthless. I know this. I know that, ideally, even if I can’t give someone money that by giving them the same attention and respect I’d give anyone else, I am giving them the message “I see you, and you are worthwhile,” and I know that is a message many homeless people need to hear. Despite the fact that I know all this, I still regularly ignore homeless people.

Two days ago, a young and articulate homeless man stopped me on the street. He thanked me for my time, and asked me if I’d get him something to eat which I did. After talking to him further, I bought him a razor, some deodorant and soap at a local Walgreens because he said his lack of grooming was hurting him during his job interviews. He told me he felt bad about asking for what he needed, and I told him not to – that it was a joy to give to someone when I felt appreciated and respected. We parted ways with a hug, and I ignored all the other homeless people who talked to me on the way home.

I am able to occasionally engage with homeless people now, usually by chatting with them. But, I had to forgive myself for ignoring them first. I used to criticize myself all the time – how selfish I was! How much pain they were in, and I would willingly buy myself a latte, and not spare 50 cents for a starving person. What did that say about me? What type of selfish, self absorbed person was I? Thing was, that whole line of reasoning was too painful for me to go down often. So, usually, I would avoid the homeless and not engage with them so I didn’t have to confront these uncomfortable thoughts about what type of person I was.

However, eventually I came to forgive myself for ignoring the homeless people on my Starbucks run, and a funny thing happened. The more I was able to forgive myself for ignoring homeless people, the more I was able to engage with them. When my head was not filled with self-criticism, or actively involved with suppressing it, I had room to listen to them. Every time I have made the space to listen to a homeless person, they have been profoundly grateful. I can now see I was not avoiding them because I was selfishly hoarding my money – I was avoiding them because it is emotionally difficult to engage with someone in that much pain. I could give every homeless person I see in a day 50 cents, no problem, but I can’t take on that much of their experience without becoming profoundly depressed myself. So now, I do what I need to do. If I have the time, and emotional energy, I will talk to a homeless person – see what they need, and if it’s something I am able to give. And if not, that’s ok too.

I’m still working on it. I’ve noticed that the ones I help the most are the nicest and most articulate homeless people, and that probably the ones in greater need of help are some of the more difficult ones. But, I also know I’m not there yet. I’m still too full of ego to engage with someone who can’t moderate themselves for me, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be self absorbed. Because you can’t just replace self absorption with compassion magically, you have to give yourself what you need first.

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