By Caryn Phillips
Often our world is all we know. Our world has been shaped by our experience—where we have been, who we have known, what we have done—as well as by our habits, standards, and aspirations. When we see a man sleeping in a doorway or a woman asking for help in a slurred voice, we compare their condition with our world. We may assume there is something fundamentally wrong with someone in such a state.
In truth, poverty puts people into a different world. The homeless person sleeping in the doorway may not have been able to rest the night before because he was guarding his few possessions. That woman may have an untreated medical condition that affects her speech.
Chelle Thompson writes,“Human beings seldom step outside of themselves to really grasp the needs and fears of others. We often project our own thoughts and beliefs upon strangers, and make judgments based upon how we think they ‘should’ be living their lives.”
Someone has suggested that to understand others, we should walk a mile in their shoes. But can I walk in the shoes of a single mother who is homeless, sick, battling an addiction to prescription drugs that she acquired in the hospital, and has had her children taken from her and placed in foster care? How can I possibly ever feel what she feels? I can’t walk in her shoes, but I can ask if she’d like to talk, to tell me her story, to tell me how it feels in her shoes. We may both benefit.
“I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.”
The problem is not the person
A dear friend, Quentin, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He has had hallucinations that made him think, for example, that ten people were in the bed with him. Then, because he thought there was no room for him, he rolled onto the floor and called for his roommate to help him up. He has also thought that several women wanted to marry him (not an unpleasant fantasy). Once when he thought an old enemy was coming after him with an AK-47, he pulled the building’s fire alarm, and panic ensued.
Everyone had a hard time convincing Quentin that what he thought he was seeing wasn’t there. His reaction was to get stubborn and very anxious about his needs. His roommate got fed up with all of this and began saying things like, “Quentin is losing it,” or “He’s a jerk!”
Quentin eventually moved to a nursing home, and the staff there understood his physiological condition. One caregiver explained to Quentin that, in simple terms, some brain cells were sending him false signals. This placed the fault where it belonged, on his sickness rather than on Quentin himself.
At a conference on mental health that I attended, one speaker said, “Don’t say, ‘He’s a schizophrenic,’ but ‘He has schizophrenia.’” By the same token, I have multiple health issues but don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to be referred to as “the sick woman.”
This perspective changes not only our words but our attitude. Can we separate the person from whatever condition afflicts them, whether it’s mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, or physical disease? Can we find who is inside and treat that person with respect? If we can look beyond appearances or assumptions, we have a chance of uncovering something good, even beautiful, beneath a rough or unattractive exterior.
When my husband and I began volunteering at a local homeless shelter, my own preconceptions melted away as I learned the reason that this single mother or that older man was there. Often the confluence of unfortunate events that could happen to anybody had left them with no place to live and no one to take them in.
When I asked one man what he had done previously, he said that he had been an auditor, “back when I was a person.” He had actually been the overseer of a government department of auditors, before depression cost him his job and eventually everything he had. After receiving treatment at the shelter, he found a job and now has his own home again.
The staff at the shelter politely addresses those staying there as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, Sir, Miss, or Ma’am. When we show respect, we bestow dignity. Dignity helps people see themselves more positively, and that yields hope. Hope gives the will to try and keep trying. In this way, our respect can help someone find a new life.
Quentin’s severe hallucinations were found to be the result of improper medication; when the dosage was decreased, he stopped seeing so many strange events unfolding around him. He still behaves oddly at times, but he is understood and accepted at the nursing home—and he’s happy.
“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.”
—H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
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