How to care without it ripping your heart out.
EMMA'S NOTES #43
[Let’s collectively ignore it’s Friday and not Wednesday because I had a long weekend so technically it’s my Wednesday 👉🏻👈🏻]
San Francisco is not what I thought it would be.
Yes, there are palm trees. And yes, when you walk through the business district you see all the logos you normally see on your computer, now promptly shining on glass buildings.
In front of those buildings, however, there are homeless people. A friend who previously lived in the Golden city told me wisely: “San Francisco is the city where the biggest brains of our planet stumble over homeless people to go up to the 20th floor of a skyscraper to build an app to save the world.”
The residence hall in which I live happens to be in the Tenderloin. On its Wikipedia page, this neighborhood is called ‘dingy’. In real life, dingy turns out to mean that this neighborhood has the highest rate of unhoused inhabitants. These people without a permanent home, have built encampments with tents and other structures that can never parallel a dignified home. Homelessness is not the only problem, however, as it intersects with drug (ab)use, high crime rates, and a mental illness epidemic.
To put it in less abstract terms: on a daily basis, I see people in psychosis or otherwise expressing distortion with reality. Part of the street scene is people injecting or inhaling drugs, urinating, vomiting, and defecating out in the open. It's common to see people lying on the streets, either because of exhaustion or overdose.
I believe no good is ever going to come from shaming the people in these situations. Guilt-tripping other inhabitants or visitors of San Francisco is not a dignified or helpful response either. I have been struggling to find which response is in line with my values, however.
Sometimes I give people I come across some money or food. Sadly, these cases are the exception, however, as this is not without risking my own safety. Some homeless people are mentally ill and some are under the influence of drugs. Both conditions make their behavior unpredictable in all cases and volatile in some. I have been advised by many San Franciscans to avoid any interaction, even eye contact. And unfortunately, me and my friends have been in situations that justify that approach.
In my experience, however, it does not matter whether you look away. Every time I turn my gaze, I know what I'm looking away from. It hurts my heart to see people struggle and not have at least their basic needs met. Not knowing what to do makes me feel powerless and feeling shocked makes me feel naif. A dear friend helped me reflect on how this is the hurt I'm seeing. I am safeguarded from the inequality behind the clothes I'm wearing, the food I'm eating, and many of my other experiences. No matter how many books I read, or documentaries I watch on what is unjust in this world, I can choose when, how, and if I interact with that hurt. I know that makes me a very privileged individual.
When I started writing this piece, I knew it had a very high chance of being very fitting to the title 'privileged woman complains about having to interact with the unprivileged'. And even though I've done my best to avoid this, I think the title still fits some extent.
I am selfishly writing this piece to process my experiences, as well as to share my coping strategies up until now. Over the next four years, I'll probably face a lot more hurt I haven't seen before, so this is up to change. However, without further ado, here's my way to cope without letting what you see rip you apart:
Be humble in your opinions.
You don't know what is going on in other people's life. People are complex and so are their lives. Yes, some people do owe a substantial part of their bad luck to their own choices. These people are the absolute tiny majority, however. And I'd rather assume good intent in 100% of people than shame people. So be humble, when forming your opinions about people suffering, policymakers, people who are seemingly not suffering, and really anybody.
Be humble in the estimation of the effect of your actions.
Just as you don't have all information, you also have limited power to make changes. Don't search in vain for the perfect solution, instead: do everything you can that at least you think is going to positively contribute to the solution.
The key here is to be humble and realistic about what you can do but to do everything you can.
Watch the words you use.
I have yet to find a problem in which shaming is an effective measure. Shame can be subtle though and easily and unintentionally slip between the words you're using. Therefore, be careful in the words you use. It might seem small, but there really is a difference in saying unhoused or transitionally housed people rather than homeless people.
Express and release your emotions.
Nobody wins if you suppress your emotions. It is only natural that people experience different emotions caused by different triggers. You may be shocked or moved by things you see for the first time. Just because these experiences are not new to others, does not mean that the novelty for you can't cause emotion in you. As long as you take responsibility for your emotions and their regulation, I don't see what's wrong with feeling what you feel.
Do not stop caring.
Desensitization is the psychological process in which negative emotional stimuli cause diminishing emotional reactions over time. This is natural and bound to happen. I've noticed it in myself already. In the first weeks, the things I saw would move me deeply, now the visual input does not always stop my train of thought. While it is natural that the immediate emotional response diminishes, this does not have to mean the extent to which you care diminishes as well.
What helps for me, is to actively cultivate compassion. You can do this with meditation, by journaling, or by making a mental note. I like to say the following line (learned in RODBT therapy) in my head: 'may this person be at ease, may this person feel safe and secure, may this person feel content with their life, may this person experience joy'. It might sound silly, but try it a few times and you are likely to feel it in your heart.
How do you cope with feelings of helplessness?
Sending warm thoughts your way,
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