By: Sara Ringenbach ~Staff Writer~
The Pope’s recent decision to dine with the homeless instead of the American political elite has fathered a massive wave of popular support. However, supporting this decision is easy. Theoretical homeless people don’t smack you in the face with the harsh realities of destitution. They aren’t covered with the raw, unsettling smell of suffering that challenges the limits of altruism. We treat theoretical homeless people much better than their real counterparts.
My good friend told me about his extent of involvement with the homeless. One afternoon in Cleveland, a homeless woman asked him for spare change.
He decided to invest in his karma by giving the woman a few dollars and proceeded on his way. As he was walking down the street, he heard a loud cry behind him shouting, “YOUNG MAN! YOUNG MAN!” He turned and saw the homeless woman heading toward him, waving her arms for his attention. Instead, he ran away.
I’ve speculated in vain about why this woman called after him. Maybe my friend dropped his wallet? Maybe some spare money fell out? Maybe she just wanted to thank him?
He told me, “I don’t know what she wanted, and I am content with that.”
Though my friend’s intent was to aid someone in need, he was more comfortable with the monetary interaction than the actual human interaction that followed.
I don’t mean to paint my friend as heartless. He’s someone who would guide a blind person across the street and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on anybody no matter the oral hygiene situation. Frankly speaking, if I were in his situation, I probably would have responded with a similar degree of alarm.
As individuals part of a larger societal framework, we are conditioned to behave according to certain expected social “scripts.”
Cultural groups often have a collective social script that members subscribe to, such as the social aggregate of the homeless: they situate themselves in the backdrop of society, rest stoically against public infrastructure with a cardboard sign and wait for altruism to show up.
Apart from the occasional babbling, dialogue is limited to “Thank you” and “God bless you, baby.” Social scripts create a standard of normative behavior in society. If an individual violates the accepted script, the interaction can become uneasy. Thus, when the homeless woman yelled at my friend after the monetary transaction, the production of “Young Man Donates to Homeless Woman” deviated sharply off-script. She did not follow her expected supporting role of thanking the benefactor and allowing the curtain to fall on the interaction.
Instead, she refused to be typecast as homeless and played the part of a human. This ostensibly minor transgression usurped the expected norm, unsettling the social instincts of my friend and consequently leading to his seemingly disproportionate flight reaction.
Why do we cast homeless people to play the part of social ornaments instead of actual people? Why are we stunned into disbelief when they remind us of their humanity and attempt conversation with us? Being a good person is in vogue; we fashion values of kindness, generosity and compassion. Charity is now lathered in masturbatory self-gratification.
The idea of suffering has become romanticized and photoshopped of blemishes. It is more convenient to donate money to faceless charities than talk to survivors of suffering.
It is easier to be charitable within the realm of obscurity than to face the very unsettling countenance of misery. Often we are guilty of walking past the homeless without even acknowledging their presence.
We strip them of their dignity and liken them to statues carved from stigma. How can we expect social progress when we refuse to look suffering in the eyes? Basic civility is cheap. Eye contact is free. Smiles aren’t taxed. Hoping someone has a good day will not bankrupt your expenditures.
How can we think of ourselves as charitable when we give people money but deny them of their humanity?