An odd thing happened to me yesterday. I’d been biking, and for some now-forgotten reason, I’d gotten off my bike and was walking the last few blocks to work. A woman caught my attention. She strongly reminded me of a colleague of mine, only it was as if this colleague had encountered such a sharp curve in the road of her life that she had slipped. This woman’s hair was mashed on one side. She wore a loose, stained dress and slippers. She shuffled. Then I literally shifted my gaze, and there was a man who strongly reminded me of a client of mine – only as if my client now found himself living under an overpass.
I see down-and-out (what a benign phrase) people every day out in the world. But something about seeing these folks, who called others to mind, reminded me of the knife’s edge of fortune. I had a teacher in graduate school who asked us on the first day of class: “What do you think the difference is between you and your clients?” Her answer: Suffering. For those who find themselves walking through our ordered worlds with their torn slips hanging below the hems of their dresses, and who mutter to themselves without benefit of a cell phone as camouflage, their pain has so overwhelmed their system that they aren’t interested in or capable of putting on the dog for the rest of us.
My long-ago teacher then said, “Imagine for a moment everyone you love. Then imagine them all wiped out in some catastrophe. How do you think your mind would respond to pain of that magnitude?” Her point was that, given enough pain, we might also find ourselves looking fairly mentally ill. That’s what struck me about yesterday: since these two strangers put me in mind of people I know and care about, I was reminded that, under certain circumstances, any of us could end up like these folks.
A writing teacher of mine is a homeless activist here in Portland. She once asked students in a writing class to think about what would happen if we lost our homes. All of us named people we knew who would take us in and help us. “So, imagine,” she said, “that all these people we see on the streets have gone through their list, like your list, and for various reasons, there is now no one to help them.”
I am thinking of how close any of us is to that slide into destitution. I am also thinking of how we are all a balm to each other against that happening.