Homelessness and Respect, Part Three

Photo of Jack and Vicky’s memorial stone in my garden before I added their names.

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

A couple of weeks later, Vicky received an ordinary letter via USPS, delivered by a friend whose address she had been using. It notified her that she was eligible for a one-bedroom apartment in a new luxury high rise with a quota of affordable units. The Section 8 voucher would pay for most of the rent, and about 30 percent of her Social Security income would cover the rest. Jack’s name was not on the voucher, so he would not be able to live there legally. He could only stay as a guest for a certain number of nights per month. Vicky was ecstatic, and Jack was relieved but also angry and resentful. I was relieved but outraged by the stupidity of the system. How could it be good or right to split a couple who had been married for many years by housing one and denying it to the other, especially when Jack had been the primary breadwinner and had kept them alive for years? I was confounded.

I vividly remember the day I drove Vicky to the apartment to see it for the first time. The building was new and fresh, the landscaping gorgeous, the apartment small but ultra-modern, clean, with in-unit laundry, hardwood floors, and top-of-the-line appliances. Neither Vicky nor I could believe her luck. The rental agent was respectful and kind as she gave us a tour, helped Vicky sign the lease, and arranged a move-in date. If she had any doubts about her new tenant, she hid them well. Afterward, back in my car, Jack and Vicky argued, and Jack stalked off, acting like he felt abandoned and scared. Vicky’s world was changing, but what would happen to him? Worried but not knowing what else to do, I dropped Vicky back at the motel. The next day she called to say that later that night, Jack arrived at the motel to make up, and again, take one day at a time.

Besides a few items of clothing, some rudimentary cooking utensils and dishware, and the essential papers they must have with them at all times, Jack and Vicky had nothing to furnish an apartment. Feeling exhilarated by our success, the week between lease signing and moving in, I and others who had befriended them at their intersection rustled up some furniture. One provided a dining table and chairs. A couple of the large home furnishing companies in the area had programs for people moving off the street into subsidized housing. We got a free mattress, box spring, and couch through them. A family in my neighborhood was cleaning out their father’s home after his passing and donated end tables and lamps. Financial donations purchased towels and bed linens. From somewhere, a TV materialized. That was an absolute essential, I soon realized, as Vicky, sick and exhausted from years on the streets, wanted to do nothing but watch it all day long. 

After the portion deducted for the rent, the remainder of Vicky’s Social Security check allowed her to connect basic cable service and a telephone landline. Jack continued to panhandle for food and household supply money. When they first became homeless, they had stashed some of their belongings in the basements and garages of friends, so gradually, they reclaimed these. The most significant stepping stone to relative normalcy was getting Vicky’s engagement ring out of the pawn shop.

Vicky and I had fantasized about a housewarming party to thank those who had helped along the way and celebrate their new home. But that was indeed a fantasy. Neither Jack nor Vicky had the energy or self-confidence to interact with a large group. Though relieved to have a home of their own, they were disoriented and would take a long time to adjust to their new life and break the habits of years of homelessness. They would not open a bank account but paid all their bills with cash or money orders. They did not want a donated computer or an email address, believing that would expose them to the scrutiny of state officials, police, and debt collection agencies. They had an apartment but still did not feel safe and secure. It was not yet their home. Watching them during this transition time showed me that homelessness is not just an outward condition but a state of mind; it takes a long time to change deeply ingrained patterns. They had wanted housing for so long, but now they didn’t know what to do with it. Though Jack was allowed to be in the apartment during the day and kept his things there, he was restless, had to be out on the streets, on the move, and couldn’t relax.

Vicky had smoked compulsively since she was a young girl. She had advanced COPD and congestive heart failure and was a cancer survivor several times. As soon as she moved into the apartment, her legs and abdomen began to fill with fluid. She could hardly move, was nauseated constantly, and couldn’t eat or sleep. Because Jack and Vicky were on Mass Health[1] and Vicky qualified for Medicare, they were not strangers to the healthcare system. I insisted that Vicky make an appointment to see her doctor and planned to drive her there. We arranged a date, and when it arrived, she canceled the appointment saying she was too sick to go.

Several cancellations later, and frustrated with her, I finally accompanied Vicky to the doctor. She was in such bad shape that he immediately recommended hospitalization. She absolutely refused. I argued with her, begged, and finally threw up my hands in frustration. Her excuse was that she couldn’t leave Jack alone, or he might start taking drugs again. This was the first time either of them had said anything to me about drug involvement. Perhaps the early naysayers of my friendship with Jack and Vicky had been right. I was shocked and disappointed. Vicky later denied that Jack ever took drugs. She said she had just used it as an excuse to get me off her case. Still, she refused to go into hospital.

Often, I would plan to visit Vicky and Jack in her home and would receive a call at the last minute saying she was too sick to see me. I began to feel she was avoiding me and wondered if she was tired of being grateful for the help I had given. Oddly, I saw less of them now that they were more stable. I had imagined our relationship would evolve from the helper and advocate to friends now that we could see each other without standing around in the cold or oppressive heat.

Finally, I accepted my powerlessness to persuade Vicky to attend to her health issues. She was more stubborn than I. She continued to smoke, though the apartment building was a smoke-free zone. She would get Jack to take her outside in a wheelchair for a smoke several times a day. He pleaded with her to stop, but she would not listen. Part of her desire to avoid hospitalization, I was convinced, was her addiction to cigarettes and the knowledge that she would not be able to smoke in her hospital bed.

Jack stayed in Vicky’s apartment during the day when he was not panhandling and as many nights a month as allowed within the guest rules. Neither would tell me where he went on those nights he was not with her. Gradually, as he experienced more hernia and hip pain and cut back on the panhandling, he spent more time indoors. Eventually, they disregarded the rules entirely, and he lived with her in the apartment, and after a few years, they mustered the courage to put his name on the lease. The building management saw them as stable and reliable renters and overlooked the rules. Vicky kept trying to get him on the Section 8 voucher, but as far as I know, she was never successful.

I moved further from them the summer after they moved into their home. I left the state to live in a retirement community three hours away. But we exchanged phone calls regularly, and when I returned to the area to see other friends, I visited Jack and Vicky too. 

Now that she had an apartment, Vicky seemed to be in touch with her children again after years of estrangement. I had always been puzzled why her sons didn’t help their mother and stepfather when they were homeless. She never said whether or not her children had helped, and I didn’t want to pry. I can only imagine what I have heard about homelessness and family dynamics applied in this situation. Family members try to help out initially but tire of repeated requests for assistance, resent the drain on their own, often limited resources, and are ashamed of their relatives who cannot pull themselves together and get work and housing. Unable to fix the situation, they avoid their homeless relatives.   I do not know if this was the case with Vicky and her sons. I know she loved them deeply but seemed to expect no assistance from them. She was excited to hear from them on the rare occasion they called, usually to announce the birth of a new grandchild. She would call me all excited to pass on the family news. 

Over the next couple of years, Jack finally had hernia surgery, two hip replacements, and cataract surgeries. He gained weight, took his social security income early, signed up for Medicare, and began to take better care of himself. He stopped panhandling (I believe) and bought a used car. After one visit, I gave him a seat cushion to cover the upholstery tear in the driver’s side seat. He drove me to my next destination when I left their home after a two-hour visit. During that short drive, I felt an easy camaraderie. I marveled at how far he had come. Life seemed relatively normal for him now.

As Jack got stronger, Vicky got weaker. Instead of resisting hospitalization, she was continuously in and out of the hospital to drain the fluid that rapidly built up in her body. Sometimes her stays were thirty days or longer. She might be home for only a few days when Jack would find her unconscious on the couch and call 991 for another trip to the ER and ICU. I talked to both of them by phone and sent them cards and flowers. Vicky was determined to fight for her life. The doctors had begun to speak to her about hospice, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted with all her might to go on living. I wondered how she could consider her life worth living with all its pain and suffering, and she admitted she was exhausted. But she talked about praying that God would miraculously preserve and heal her.

As I watched hospital stay after hospital stay, where she often spent a week in ICU, I thought it ironic that the social safety net was working for Vicky for the first time. I felt sure if it had started supporting her earlier when she and Jack first became homeless, the state may not now be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses for her care.

When she was at home, the social service system provided a caregiver who bathed her, washed her long hair, and did light housekeeping. Jack learned to cook with Vicky’s verbal instruction, carried her from the living room couch, where she spent all day and night, to the bathroom, and did what he could to take care of her. It wore him down, but he would say when I asked how he was doing, “What can I do? It is what it is.”

By now, my spouse accepted my friendship with Jack and Vicky. After each phone conversation, I would report the specifics of their lives, and she shared my concern for them. She no longer feared they would take advantage of me. Other friends would ask, from time to time, how Jack and Vicky were doing. Their movement from homelessness to a stable, somewhat secure home life was considered a success story. People rejoiced for them. Though Vicky was very sick, she wouldn’t die on the streets.

As I watched Vicky’s life ebb away, I thought more about the root causes of the long years of homelessness that destroyed her health and contributed to her imminent death. I knew only a few details about her early life, but what I knew indicated that violence, abuse, and instability had rocked its foundations from the beginning. Her chaotic childhood prevented her from developing the inner psychological resources to cope with illness, job loss, financial insecurity, and homelessness in later life. She lacked the habit of staying organized and focused, of planning for the future. Impulse control was missing, and she was often volatile and verbally abusive. Accessing the social safety net, as full of holes and weak as it is, requires discipline and patience, and Vicky’s early life did not foster those qualities. And she did not have the support of friends and family at the beginning of the slide into homelessness. No one stepped in to hold her up while she got her feet under her again. 

I knew less about Jack’s past. He didn’t mention his family, other than Vicky. Instead, he talked proudly of the work he had done for an interior design business at one time. I’m convinced he had come to think of panhandling as a job, if not a profession. He earned the money he received; I don’t believe he thought of it as charity. The physical effort of standing and walking back and forth for hours on end and the mental effort of reading traffic patterns, recognizing familiar vehicles, and interpreting drivers’ attitudes, absorbed all his energies. He was good at it. He built relationships with his clients by offering something positive to their daily commute experience—a kind inquiry into their health and wellbeing, a comment on the weather, a reflection on what was happening worldwide. He was alert and engaged as he worked hard and long, giving it all he had.

Though Jack and Vicky argued frequently, they loved and relied on one another. Vicky took responsibility for filling out paperwork and making the necessary calls to keep them connected to social services and managing the household once they were in an apartment. Jack went out into the world to earn what he could and make the meager purchases that kept them alive. Jack was Vicky’s second husband and not the father of her children, but she said he had embraced and taken care of them. They were a team, pooling their talents and sticking together no matter what. As she got sicker and finally gave in to hospice care, Vicky had nothing but praise for the loving care Jack offered her. She could be a difficult patient, but he never wavered.

#

On the 40th day after Jack went silent on me, I received an email message through the then-defunct Go Fund Me account. It was from one of the other commuters, who had befriended Jack and Vicky, helped them financially and with donations of household items, and stayed in touch with them over the years since they moved into their home. It read, “As you probably know, Jack and Vicky have passed away, so if you wanted any money left in this account to go to her son and granddaughter, please contact me,” and gave a phone number. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes! Vicky dead, yes, I had been expecting that, but Jack too! How could that be? A deep sense of loss washed through me.  I called immediately, but the emailer was in the middle of dinner and couldn’t talk. When we spoke the following day, I expressed my shock, and she shared the few details she knew about their deaths. Jack died of a heart attack on July 2, and Vicky thirteen days later on July 15. Like me, this friend had left multiple messages on voicemail toward the end, and Jack’s brother had retrieved them and called back with the news. “It’s a love story,” the woman said. “Jack would have cared for Vicky forever, one day at a time, and Vicky was not going to let go of life while Jack needed her.” I agreed. Jack and Vicky were so intertwined and interdependent that it was impossible to imagine what kind of life Jack could have made for himself after Vicky’s passing.

The woman gave me the address of one of Vicky’s sons, and I intend to send my condolences and ask if or where Jack and Vicky are buried. I found a beautiful smooth beach stone and have written their names on it. I will place it among the flowers in my garden as a reminder of my friends. I loved them and felt loved by them, and I am grateful for what they taught me about resilience, hope, and caring about others whose lives are very different.

They offered me a window into the world of homelessness I would never have encountered otherwise. I’m grateful for the brief glimpse they provided because it showed me that the problem is far more complex than I had imagined. Everyone’s story is different. Homeless people can’t be lumped together in one category or put in one box. I wanted to tell Jack and Vicky’s story to honor their strength, resilience, and dignity. It’s my way of paying tribute to them and their accomplishments against all odds. I feel sad about how we—those with resources, security, and social connections—have misunderstood, avoided, and even vilified people like them. Their deaths have made me sad, and I miss them.

You might imagine that being Jack’s and Vicky’s friend and a participant in their move from unhoused to housed spurred me on to involvement in a movement to address systemic homelessness, but it did not. I’ve never been one for espousing causes. I’m better at getting to know and helping individuals, and I recognize that quality in myself. And now, when my energy is running out, I find myself wanting to tell stories. The overarching theme of this blog is respect, and I respect Jack and Vicky. They were worthy of far more respect than they received. I want to show them to you and invite your respect also.


[1] MassHealth provides health benefits and help to pay for them to qualifying children, families, seniors, and people with disabilities living in Massachusetts.

Homelessness and Respect, Part Two

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

I retired in January, and almost six months passed before I heard from Jack. In mid-June, my phone rang, and an unknown number popped up, so as usual, I let it go to voicemail. When I played the message, I heard a raspy female voice identifying herself as Vicky,  Jack’s wife, asking for my help, my financial help. They were, she said, on the verge of being thrown out of the motel and needed money to pay off their room fee debt. Could I help, even a little? I had been dreading receiving such a call. It fulfilled my spouse’s concerns about being taken advantage of by a homeless couple. Still, I felt I shouldn’t turn my back on Jack and Vicky. I had not forgotten Jack during the months I had not seen him, and I wondered why their financial situation had gotten worse. At the time, I considered myself a Christian and routinely asked myself what Jesus would do in challenging situations. I was convinced he would not turn his back on Jack and Vicky.  I called Vicky back and arranged to meet them in the motel parking lot. When I arrived on a hot June day, she hobbled out of the motel toward me, reeking of cigarette smoke. She was as thin as a rake, had long, full, dark-grey hair pulled up in a ponytail, and very few teeth.

“Where’s Jack?” I asked after we had introduced ourselves. I had made a point of telling her I wanted to see them both. 

“He’s inside,” she responded, “too embarrassed to come out. He didn’t want me to call you, but we had no choice.”

“Go ask him to come out, please.” So, she did.

Jack appeared with her a few minutes later. Hands shoved in his jeans’ pockets; eyes cast downward.

We chatted for a few minutes before I handed over the hundred dollars I had settled on giving them. They thanked me profusely. Vicky said she knew my birthday was coming up soon. That felt a little scary, but I must have told Jack my birthdate years ago, and he had told her. She said she was good at remembering stuff like that and that hers was in September. We figured out that we were the same age. Jack was about seven years younger. I told them they couldn’t make financial requests a regular thing because my income was less in retirement. I didn’t mention that my spouse was opposed to me giving them any money. She promised they wouldn’t. I asked for a receipt from the hotel documenting their payment, so Vicky went in and handed over the cash, returning a few moments later with a receipt on hotel letterhead, and I went on my way. On my birthday, I received a voicemail from Vicky wishing me a happy day.

That summer, the department of highways decided to change the traffic pattern at Jack’s intersection, making it a traffic circle. This change had a dramatically negative effect on his income. For a couple of months before construction began, police started enforcing “no panhandling on state highways” laws and forced him and others off this turf to prepare for the work crews. Jack had to find a new intersection. He chose one about a mile away, further from the motel, with less traffic and, therefore, less lucrative. So, he had to work even longer hours, and Vicky started helping. She could hardly walk from leg and hip problems, and her COPD tired her quickly. She had to take a taxi from the motel to the intersection, which added an expense and cut their profits. They fell further behind in their payments to the motel and asked again if I could help. I felt between a rock and a hard place.

I had been bringing them food, toiletries, cookies, and other treats I made, as well as handing out ones and fives, but I felt very uncomfortable about this second large financial request. So, I consulted a friend who does a lot of social justice work and, as an economist, understands the systemic roots of homelessness. She was sympathetic but had no simple solutions. However, she had two suggestions—connect them to housing assistance resources and consider a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for them more broadly. Neither proposal was uncomplicated. I knew nothing about housing resources and expected the learning curve to be steep. I didn’t even know where to start, and I knew doing the research and making the right connections would take a lot of time. Nevertheless, Jack and Vicky’s situation was urgent, and there was no other route to permanent housing.

As for Go Fund Me, the mailing lists for their campaigns come from one’s personal email contact list. I would put my reputation and trustworthiness on the line by soliciting funds for a homeless couple. What if they misused the funds I raised? I risked embarrassment, at the very least.

I was nervous, but I presented both suggestions to F and D, who were not enthusiastic about the potential success of the first, but relatively comfortable with the second. I learned they had been in the housing assistance system for a long time, encountered barriers at every turn, and were disillusioned and frustrated by the bureaucracy and the people who operated it. They were hesitant but ultimately okay with asking my friends for money through Go Fund Me, even though it would compromise their privacy by displaying their circumstances and pictures on the internet. Nevertheless, they were desperate and felt they had no other choice.

Jack had developed a painful hernia by this time and needed surgery. That provided the specificity required for fundraising. I launched the Go Fund Me campaign with a goal of $2,000 to pay the motel bills so Jack could take time off to have the surgery and recuperate. Money started coming in, not pouring in, but there was a steady stream. I was encouraged and humbled by the trust and generosity of my circle of friends and others I didn’t know, who were moved by Jack and Vicky’s story.

We raised about $1,900, and I withdrew the funds from the account and handed them over to Jack and Vicky, who promptly gave them to the motel and provided me with a receipt. But Jack did not have his surgery and continued panhandling. They were further behind in the payments than they had let on, and he had to keep walking and begging to avoid eviction. I was frustrated and annoyed at both of them for not being upfront with me. The situation was unsustainable, their source of income was drying up, and both were getting physically weaker. We had to put more energy into finding permanent housing.

With a great deal of cynicism about the process, Vicky gave me all the information she had collected about housing assistance, all their personal data, their social security numbers, and the contact numbers of some of the social service people they had dealt with over the years. I started making phone calls and waiting for callbacks. It was slow and discouraging. When I did get a callback, I met with cold skepticism from the social workers. Yes, they knew Jack and Vicky and their complicated situation. They said it was hard to work with the couple because they often didn’t show up for appointments, answer phone calls or submit the necessary paperwork in a timely way. But sure, they’d meet with them again if I could get them to an appointment.

I confronted Vicky about their failure to meet the requirements for housing assistance. She angrily showed me the other side of the picture. Sure, they missed appointments. The Section 8 housing voucher they were seeking must be in Vicky’s name because Jack had a criminal record and was ineligible. (I didn’t ask what he had done, and she didn’t offer that information.) Vicky was often sick and found it very hard to use public transportation to appointments. They couldn’t afford taxis to the housing office, which was miles away. They didn’t return voicemails because they didn’t have the money to add minutes to their cell phones. And the social workers didn’t answer voicemail messages either, she retorted. They had no permanent address, so they had mail delivered to the addresses of friends or relatives who sometimes lost it or took so long to bring it to them that they missed deadlines. They were afraid to have it sent to the motel because they suspected the front desk clerk often opened or threw away renters’ mail. They had been working the system for years and were discouraged and disillusioned. Ironically, it seemed to me, to get housing assistance, one needed all the advantages housed folks have: a permanent address, a phone that was always active, stability, good health, a reliable income, and trustworthy friends. Jack and Vicky had none of these. The system didn’t work for them; to me, it seemed backward, convoluted, discriminatory, and broken.

Nevertheless, as they say, we persisted. I started sitting with Vicky to complete paperwork and began driving her and Jack to appointments. At times I got frustrated with Vicky and with the social workers. We’d have a crucial meeting, and Vicky would be too sick to go, or we’d get the paperwork back after weeks of waiting with a demand for more information. Why hadn’t they asked for such and such in the first place? I learned that Vicky had been on several housing lists for years, but nothing had ever come through. Jack and Vicky said the system was unfair. Other homeless acquaintances had gotten housing more quickly and then broken the rules by allowing friends or family to live with them or by living elsewhere and sub-letting the Section 8 apartment. The system was susceptible to fraud. That made all the social workers jaded.

Amid all this, I started getting criticism from, of all places, a member of my church. She had heard about my involvement with Jack and Vicky and living in the neighborhood where Jack panhandled, she believed she had seen him and Vicky at their intersection. She felt that I was incredibly naïve about homeless people. She insisted that all the panhandlers at that particular intersection were addicts who used the money they collected to buy drugs, and she was sure Jack and Vicky were tricking me. She was only trying to protect me, she protested. I admitted to myself that she might be right. Jack and Vicky had told me of acquaintances who had died of overdoses—women and men who went to rehab, got clean, and then OD’d as soon as they were back on the streets. Jack and Vicky did not look, talk, or act like addicts, but how could I be sure? And yet, I told myself, trying not to be judgmental, even if they were, did they not deserve secure housing? How could they ever escape from addiction unless they had it?

My spouse was also suspicious and afraid that I would be drawn into a bottomless pit of need that would consume too much of my time, energy, and resources. Her concern was not unreasonable either. That sort of thing had happened to me before, most recently with my job and our church. We argued about the situation constantly. Feeling out of my depth and unsure about so many things, I tried to walk a fine line between genuine caring and effective involvement and a healthy distance—reminding myself that I should do what I could but not feel responsible for the whole situation.

As fall progressed and the weather got colder, Vicky got sicker. She had to stop panhandling and stay indoors at the motel all day. Jack’s hernia became more painful, and he shuffled more slowly back and forth at the intersection. I felt a kind of desperation, but they seemed resigned. Winters had come and gone before, and they had survived by putting one foot in front of the other. “One day at a time,” Jack would say, or “It is what it is.”

Then one day, Vicky called to say that she had received notice of a hearing at the local housing office. Her case was to be heard by an arbitrator who would make a recommendation to the housing authority. Could I drive her? We made plans for me to pick her up, and we arrived early to get advice from her housing counselor about what to say at the hearing. We were both nervous, feeling as if everything hung on this brief opportunity to be heard. Vicky, who knew she could be offensively outspoken at times, might say the wrong thing and turn the arbitrator against her. 

Four of us—Vicky, the arbitrator, the counselor, and I gathered around a large table. The arbitrator asked Vicky a series of questions about her current homeless situation. The social worker made a bland statement about Vicky’s worthiness. The arbitrator turned to me last and asked why I was there. I responded that I was Vicky’s friend and advocate. She wanted to know a little bit about my background and whether I was likely to continue to help Vicky. I assured her I planned to stick around.  

At the end of the hearing, the arbitrator explained the next steps and when we might hear from the housing authority, and then wrapped up by saying, “Does anyone have anything final to add?” We all looked at each other, and then, shocking myself, I said, “If Vicky doesn’t get housed very soon, she is going to die this winter.” Jaws dropped around the table. No one else said anything, and the arbitrator gathered her files and got up to leave. 

Outside the room, the counselor, Vicky, and I discussed how the hearing had gone. The counselor took me aside and told me that my final remark would probably make or break the case, depending on whether the arbitrator judged it a stunt or the truth. Great, I thought I may have ruined Vicky’s chances. Back in the car, Vicky thanked me with tears in her eyes but admitted that what I had said about her possibly dying scared her. It scared me too. [TO BE CONTINUED]

Homelessness and Respect, Part One

(I’ve changed the names of my friends to protect their privacy).

It’s been 39 days since I have heard from Jack. I’m assuming that his wife, Vicky, has died. I’ve called and texted him repeatedly but received no response. I’ve tried to reach our one mutual acquaintance, but she has not responded to my email inquiring if she has any news. I’ve looked online for an obituary or death record but found nothing. I’ve even considered calling the police in their town but have decided against that. Jack and Vicky are uncomfortable with the police. I doubt that law enforcement would give out any information anyway. I’ve wondered about showing up at their apartment building to see if the management will tell me what has happened.

I wanted to be there for both Jack and Vicky at Vicky’s death—be there from a distance, at least, because Jack turned down my offer to come in person. Instead, he promised he would keep me posted about all developments, and then, 39 days ago, after texting that Vicky was having a better day than she had for a long time and wondering if that signified the calm before the storm, he dropped off the radar screen.

I fear all sorts of traumatic developments. Perhaps Jack broke down after Vicky’s death, could not cope with the loss, and was hospitalized. He cared for her almost entirely by himself since her last hospital stay—90 grueling days and nights, aided only by minimal hospice support. I even imagine that he might have given her a lethal dose of morphine to end her suffering and has been charged with causing her death. I’m good at imagining the worst.

Or maybe he’s been evicted from their apartment, which they could only afford because of a Section 8[1] housing voucher issued in Vicky’s name. (All attempts to get Jack’s name on the voucher failed.) Perhaps he is homeless again, without a cell phone, so he is not getting my messages. Maybe he is even in jail. Who knows what grief may have led him to do after Vicky’s passing? Or perhaps he wants nothing more to do with me. I promised Vicky I would stay in touch with Jack after she was gone, but possibly he wants to be left alone.

Out of respect for their privacy, I’ve waited years to write about Jack and Vicky—the story of our relationship and what I have learned from them. Knowing them has been an intimate encounter with homelessness, its causes (personal and systemic), and its effects on the body, mind, spirit, and family. The story is not only theirs; it is mine also. Getting deeply involved with a homeless couple challenged and changed my life.   

I can’t pretend to know anything more about homelessness than what I have learned from Jack and Vicky. Those who work with the chronically homeless may find my interactions with this couple and my observations on homelessness naïve and simplistic. If so, my only defense is that my responses probably represent many educated white people with relative financial security and a network of friends and family who offer us support in difficult circumstances. (Jack and Vicky are white, by the way.)

So, let me begin with how they came into my life. About ten years ago, Jack was panhandling at an intersection I passed through each day on my morning and evening commute. It bordered the town where I worked and was the final stoplight before the highway leading west to my home. I met him for the first time at about 7:00 p.m. during rush hour on a dark, cold winter evening. As I inched along toward the intersection, I saw a medium-height man bundled in a bulky winter coat several sizes too large, with a wool cap pulled down over his ears. Because of the ice and snow, he shuffled slowly and carefully back and forth along the line of cars stopped for the light. He held a cardboard sign—I don’t remember what it said.

A panhandler was a familiar sight to me. At that time, I saw them regularly at any number of intersections in the Boston area. But it was unusual to see them as late as 7:00 p.m. or in such cold temperatures. Panhandlers were usually not that dedicated. I slowly approached the head of the line and rolled down my window, rooting through my purse to find a one-dollar bill.

“Hi! Cold for you to be out,” I said

“Sure is. How are you tonight?” he responded with a smile.

The light turned green, and with a brief, “Fine, how are you?” I held out the bill and then pushed the up button on the car window. He smiled again, waved, and started walking back along the line of cars.

We repeated this impromptu rendezvous nightly for months. Whether I left work at 5:00 or 8:00 p.m., he was at the intersection, walking up and down the line of cars in worn-down sneakers, offering a smile and a greeting to everyone in the traffic queue. His eyes did not have the dull glaze of an addict, and his discipline and commitment far outweighed any other panhandler I had met. After a week or so, I made it a habit to save all my one-dollar bills and keep them ready to hand so I would not have to search for one in my wallet. Over time we exchanged first names, and he would speed up to get to my window when he saw my car approaching. I noticed he was having more extended conversations with the drivers in front of me. He’s made some friends, or, perhaps, regular clients, I thought. That pleased me.  His hard work and perseverance were paying off. I admire hard work, am a disciplined worker, and understand the toll it takes on the body and spirit. I felt Jack and I were kindred spirits, in a way.  Both working long exhausting days.

Spring inched along like the line of cars, and, depending on the traffic lights, I could keep my window open longer and have more than a two-sentence chat with Jack. Off came the wool cap to reveal medium-length curly greying hair. His mustache, oddly enough, was always neatly trimmed, though sometimes his beard showed several days of growth. He looked skinny beneath his oversized winter coat. I reckoned he was about my age, perhaps a little younger.  Even though his face was weathered, it was not wrinkled or scarred but attractive and babyish, in a way.

I don’t remember how long it was before my curiosity about who this man was and why he was panhandling overcame my shyness and reticence to pry—maybe six months, perhaps a year. I decided to invite Jack to dinner to ask him about his life. I chose a restaurant near his intersection and made the invitation. When I think about it now, he must have wondered who this weird woman was, inviting a homeless man to dinner. He seemed skeptical and hesitant. Why had I imagined he’d be enthusiastic? I guess I thought he’d welcome a hot, filling meal. Finally, I owned up to wanting to hear his story, and he reluctantly agreed on a day and time. For the next several days, I reminded him each time I saw him, but on the agreed-upon evening, I stood outside the restaurant for more than half an hour before I gave up and drove home. When I passed through Jack’s intersection, he wasn’t there.

The next time I saw him, I asked what had happened, joking about him standing me up. He looked embarrassed and made some excuse which I don’t remember. Suddenly I felt embarrassed. Perhaps he thought I was trying to start a romantic relationship. I wasn’t, though under different circumstances, I admitted to myself I might have considered it. There was something compelling about Jack. So, I gave it some time, and things became comfortable between us again—easy chatting for a few minutes each day, freely asking about each other’s wellbeing.  

A few months later, I tried a dinner invitation again, and Jack accepted readily and showed up this time. He was uncomfortable when he arrived, but I figured his curiosity got the better of his caution—curiosity about this strange woman who wanted to get to know him, of all people. We ordered, and I dug in, but he only picked at his food and ate little. Finally, I asked him to tell me why he was panhandling. When I think about it now, I am shocked at my intrusiveness. What right did I have to pry into his life? None, but I intensely wanted to understand what motivated him—someone, whose life was so different from mine but who seemed to share the same work ethic?

He told me about Vicky, his wife, who was sick, saying that they lived in a nearby motel. They had been homeless for a long time, more than a decade, since a place they were house-sitting was sold out from under them. They had both lost their jobs. I’m now unclear why, but I vaguely remember he said the company he worked for went out of business. They had stayed temporarily with friends, but ultimately, this motel was the only place they could find consistent shelter together (they hate the homeless shelters, which separate couples unless they have children.) It cost them about $70.00 a night to stay there, so Jack worked all day, every day, panhandling to raise that amount. Many days he didn’t reach the required total, fell into arrears, and they were always afraid of being thrown out. If it were just him, he said, he’d sleep outside except in winter, but Vicky couldn’t do it.

His story was rambling, and it was hard to keep him on track. He wanted to know about my life, too, so I told him where I worked and that I lived in a western suburb, was married but had no children—the bare minimum. My spouse, you see, was extremely nervous about me getting involved with a homeless person—afraid that Jack would show up at our door demanding money or break into the house. It had been the source of several arguments between us, and I knew she was anxiously waiting at home for me to return from this dinner.

That night when we parted, I handed Jack five twenty-dollar bills, explaining that I had kept him away from his work for over an hour and he would have lost income. This cash was to make up for that deficit. He seemed shocked and flustered but accepted the cash. We said goodbye, and he shuffled off toward the intersection. I got into my car to drive home. On my way, I passed the motel he had mentioned and looked at it for the first time. It was a fleabag. I was appalled they were charging that much per night.

Jack and I continued to see each other through the car window on my daily commute. I learned that he had to arrive at the intersection early in the day to claim his turf before some other panhandler did so. He told me that some of his colleagues were not homeless, and many were addicts. Fights sometimes broke out over turf. Jack stayed all day at his intersection in all kinds of weather and as late at night as necessary to make the nightly motel fee.

He told me people gave him all sorts of things through their car windows: food (from fresh sandwiches to canned soup), bottled water, clothing, shoes, cigarettes (he didn’t smoke, but Vicky did), and money. The food could be pretty bad sometimes, he said. From time to time, I would see him talking on a cell phone. I learned later that it was a burner, and he could only use it when he could afford to purchase a phone card to activate it. That’s how he stayed in touch with Vicky during the day.

I began to tell him when I would be away on vacation and to give him a little advance cash to help in my absence. Once every so often, I would give him a twenty instead of a one. I’d ask about Vicky, and he’d tell me about her health. Sometimes he’d look exhausted, but no matter how slowly, he kept going. He was just as committed to his job as I was to mine for the same reasons.

Our relationship went on this way for several years, two or three at least. And then, it came time for me to retire. I told Jack this was coming and that I would miss seeing him regularly. He didn’t complain, though he would lose a client and a regular income source. Instead, he focused on me—my retirement plans, the things I would enjoy about it. He seemed truly happy for me. I struggled with wanting to stay in touch and whether to give him my phone number. In the end, I did so against the better judgment of my spouse. He, however, did not offer me his. [TO BE CONTINUED]


[1] The housing choice voucher program [Section 8] provides assistance to very low-income families to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Housing can include single-family homes, townhouses and apartments and is not limited to units located in subsidized housing projects. Housing choice vouchers are administered locally by Public Housing Agencies (PHAs). A family that is issued a housing voucher is responsible for finding a suitable housing unit of the family’s choice where the owner agrees to rent under the program. A housing subsidy is paid to the landlord directly by the PHA on behalf of the participating family. The family then pays the difference between the actual rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.

Two Tales About Respect

One – Self-Respect

I’m trying to help someone hard of hearing fill a prescription for her asthma inhaler. First, I call the pharmacy to see if the refill order we submitted several days ago has been filled. The pharmacist tells me the inhaler is ready for pick up, so I send S off to the pharmacy to get it. She returns and says that the inhaler costs $50 more than it did the last time she refilled it; insurance has refused to pay for it, and the pharmacist recommends calling the insurance company. I sigh because this has happened before, and sorting it out has not gone smoothly, but I make the call.

The customer service representative tells me that, oddly enough, for this script, the brand inhaler is less expensive ($50) than the generic, and the doctor has ordered the generic, which costs $100. Still, he says, there should be no problem because he can see on S’s record that the pharmacy placed a claim yesterday for $50 for the brand inhaler. So why I ask, is the pharmacy now trying to charge $100? He says he doesn’t know; I should call the pharmacy back.

I do. The pharmacist says the insurance company is wrong; the doctor prescribed the $100 generic, but the patient refused to accept it, so they canceled the order. The calm tone in my voice deteriorates, and its pitch rises. I am frustrated. The insurance company is saying one thing, the pharmacy another. I try again to explain what the insurance agent has said and ask the pharmacist why a claim was made yesterday for $50. The pharmacist denies this. Why can’t they just give us the brand version, I ask. The pharmacist repeats, slowly, as if talking to a child, that she can do nothing more to help except call the doctor’s office on our behalf, or I can call instead. I ask her to stop and listen to me. I say I’m not stupid, and she responds that she didn’t say I was stupid. I counter, “You are talking to me like I am stupid.” Suddenly, a light goes off in my head, flashing neon red – DISRESPECT! 

Now I am angry. I snap at the pharmacist, “Never mind. I will call the doctor’s office and sort this out myself.” We hang up, and I do so. I try to explain calmly to the medical assistant that I’m frustrated and need to talk directly to a human being about a prescription refill—no voicemail, no leaving a message. This is an emergency. The patient has asthma and needs her inhaler right away. I explain the cost differential between brand and generic. The assistant gets it, takes the matter in hand, puts me on hold for a couple of minutes, then returns to say it’s all set. They have sent a script for the brand inhaler to the pharmacy. I hang up and feel relieved. Then S comes to me holding her phone, which transcribes voicemails into texts. She shows me a text from the pharmacy, received while I was on the phone with the doctor’s office, saying they have sorted everything out, re-run the prescription for the brand version, and it’s ready for pick up. No apology and no recognition that there had been any previous confusion. “OMG! Why didn’t they do that in the first place?” I scream.

Later, I reflect on this incident. First, I am embarrassed and ashamed of my childish and rude behavior toward the pharmacist. Second, I realize that the moment I felt disrespected, my controlled frustration turned into boiling anger. Then I ask myself why feeling disrespected disturbs me so much. Suddenly I have a flash of insight; someone else’s disrespectful treatment triggers my lack of respect for myself—my deep-rooted sense that I am stupid, inadequate, and unacceptable. So, besides working on breathing and calming down when disrespect provokes anger, I must also work on respecting myself. And that is a really tall order! But, if I can do that, perhaps it will help me genuinely respect the others I encounter in pharmacies, doctor’s offices, insurance companies, and everywhere. 

Does this ring a bell, touch a nerve, or resonate with you?

Two – Other Respect

It’s 11:00 a.m. on a hot summer day. I pull into the parking lot of a memory care facility where I am visiting a patient. When I exit my car, I notice a small dog in the car parked next to mine. Alarm bells go off in my head as I remember all the warnings about leaving children and animals in closed-up vehicles in hot weather. The driver cracked all four windows about two inches, but it must still be sweltering inside the car. What shall I do? I decide to go inside and ask the receptionist if they know who owns the vehicle. They don’t. I’m pretty worked up by this time, wondering what to do, so I go back to the car and try the passenger side door. To my great relief, it opens. The little dog, looking forlorn but okay, lays on the front passenger seat and looks up at me with sad eyes.

The dog is no longer the problem, but I know the owner will be one. So I decide to wait until they return and confront them about leaving the dog in a hot car. I wait about 10 minutes, petting the dog on the head, talking soothingly to it, and looking around for the owner. I worry about what to say to them but can’t settle on anything that feels comfortable, so when he arrives, I haven’t decided what to say, and I’m not ready.

I begin badly. “This is terrible; it’s too hot to leave a dog in a closed car!” His back goes up immediately, and he defensively explains that he is taking care of an elderly father who lives in this facility; he takes excellent care of this dog and doesn’t need my interference to add to his stress load. Besides, it’s not that hot, and he’s only been gone 15 minutes; the dog would have been fine. He slams the passenger door, gets in the car, and drives off. I’m angry and embarrassed and know I have handled the situation poorly, but I try to put it aside and visit the patient I’ve come to see.

Later, as I reflect on the incident, still feeling uncomfortable about my reaction, I try to rationalize my behavior. Probably the dog would have been okay, but how was I to know how long the owner had been gone or when he would return? What if the door had not been unlocked? Would I have called the police? That would have made an enormous scene. Should I have suggested that the next time he leaves the dog in the car, he should leave a note on the window saying how long he would be gone? Should I have expressed sympathy about his stress? However disrespectfully I behaved toward the owner, I still did not regret my intervention on behalf of the dog.

After more self-examination, I realized that I spent the entire ten minutes waiting for the owner’s return stewing about how to confront him. Instead, I could have paused, identified the roots of my feelings and calmed them, opened my mind and heart to the owner’s perspective, and chosen a kind, non-aggressive approach to intervention. One takeaway—if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. I knew nothing about the life of this dog owner, but I chose to judge him and find him unworthy of respect.

I still don’t believe he should have left his dog in the car, but I hope I will respond less self-righteously, more courteously, and skillfully in similar future situations.

Does this ring a bell, touch a nerve, or resonate with you?

What Is (Noticing Respect)

It’s a chilly day in June, Sunday afternoon, drizzling, and I am going grocery shopping. My sister and I dislike shopping in the rain—something about getting ourselves and our purchases wet, I suppose. 

So, I start out slightly annoyed, but remind myself, as I swing my backpack over my shoulder, walk away from my bright yellow Kia Soul, and pop up my vibrant lime umbrella: This is what is. Or, as my stepdaughter would say: It is what it isno point in wishing for something else or resisting it. Open to it.

The first cart I extract from the queue makes a thunk, thunk, thunking sound as I roll it toward the produce section. Nuts to this! I turn around and take it back to the entrance. As I approach the line of empty carts, a man pulls up behind me and offers, “This one is quieter; take this.”  I say he’s lucky, and the next one I choose will be quieter too. It is, and we laugh.

I park my cart out of the way in the produce section and walk in all directions, list in hand, picking up the things I need and crossing them off one by one. I’ve discovered that if I touch a moist vegetable like a cucumber before I open one of the plastic bags to drop it in, my damp fingers will make it easier to open the bag. I’ve also remembered that I have hand sanitizer in my purse and could use it to moisten my fingers. Pre-COVID, I used to lick them. Yuck! Now I have more respect for germs and other people.

Near the gourmet cheese section, I notice a display of Effie’s Oatcakes, which I haven’t been able to find for months. I’m overjoyed and snatch up two packages. I want to buy more, but they’re expensive, and I don’t want to be a hoarder. Others might like them too.

As I pull out of produce and into the grocery aisles, I notice a family shopping together—a man in a motorized wheelchair, a tall blond boy, and two or three younger girls—no mother in sight. One of the girls is pushing their cart, and the others are all over the place, pointing to things and asking if they can get them. I’m trying to get raspberry jam, and a surge of impatience rises in me. 

The man in the wheelchair says, “Sorry, ma’am. I try to keep them out of others’ way. Thank goodness their older brother is here to help.” 

“No worries,” I smile, feeling my impatience ebb away. One of the little girls moves aside, and I slip the jam into my cart. I meet them again in practically every aisle. They are cheerful, patient, and polite to one another and the shoppers around them.

Halfway through my shop, I still have not found the sun-dried tomatoes I am looking for, so I stop a name-tagged employee and ask if he might know where they would be. He pauses, stares into space, and goes inside himself. Slowly he says as if the words are arising from somewhere deep within, “If you are looking for the ones in the jar, they’d be with the pasta sauce.” And then, from deeper within, “The packaged ones are on an end display near the garlic in produce.”  I am impressed. “Okay, thanks. I’ll look in both places.” Again, I park the cart out of traffic and backtrack. Sure enough, they are exactly where he said they would be, and I score the last package in the store.

When I get to the checkout, every open checker is backed up. So, I choose the shortest line and settle in for the wait, noticing an older woman in front of me. When it’s her turn to unload, I see that every single item in her cart is store-brand: cereal, milk, crackers, bread, the whole lot. I wonder why. Prices are dramatically higher these days; is she trying to economize?

When it’s my turn to check out, I have a little tussle with the bagger. He wants to put my toilet paper and paper towels in the cart first. A seasoned shopper, I know those lighter items belong on top of the full bags once they are wedged tightly into the small cart. (I insist on using the smaller one because I am an older woman and find the large ones unwieldy.) He protests that he needs space to pack, and I temporarily move the paper products to the floor. So, he acquiesces, and I achieve my desired arrangement. Near the end, he holds up a loaf of brioche that slipped out of its wrapper during the checkout. 

“Sorry,” he says, “it slipped right out of the bag. I’ll get you another one. “Oh!” I look around to see a checkout area inundated with people and humming with activity. It’s a busy time for him. “Do you want me to do it?” “No, it’s not a problem. I’ll be right back.”  I park my cart and put my wallet in my backpack while I wait. 

Behind me is a father with his gawky nine-ish-year-old daughter in the checkout line. She wants a helium balloon as a treat, and he keeps showing her one option after another. She whines, “No, not that one! No, not that one!”  Finally, he says, “You’re getting this one!” and hands it to the checker. The girl is still whining.

In a few moments, my bagger returns, triumphantly bearing a fresh loaf. I thank him and turn my heavy cart toward the exit. In front of me is a short, stocky woman pushing a bigger, equally overflowing cart. She’s shuffling slowly toward the sliding doors, and again, a surge of impatience rises in my chest.

I pause and take a breath as I wait for her to get up some steam. People of all sizes and shapes, dressed stylishly and slovenly, pushing carts piled high or carrying single bags, mill around me. Each of us has some large or small impediment, some secret or obvious affliction, blemish, or limitation. Yet, here we are, going about our lives on a rainy Sunday afternoon. This is what is, I remind myself. Open to it.

As I emerge into the rain, the nine-year-old is skipping behind her dad, happily gripping the string on her bright red balloon. It floats above her head amid the raindrops and proclaims, “Best Day Ever!”

~ ~ ~ ~

Afterthought: My perspective is unquestionably western, white, and middle-class. When I finish writing the above, I wonder what is for Ukrainians amid war. What is for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, undergoing forced sterilization and labor, or for black parents in American neighborhoods afraid of gang and police violence? What is for survivors of climate disasters that destroy their homes and livelihoods or for children trapped in a schoolroom with an active shooter?  

How does a person engage, cope, deal with, or enter into reality, however benign or horrific? Can it possibly be the same interior process of pausing, breathing, noticing, and opening that I experienced at the grocery store? Can we practice today for the ultimate challenge that may come to each of us one day soon? I leave you and myself with that question.

Respect In Extremis

In Extremis definition: at the point of death, at death’s door, breathing one’s last, not long for this world.

When I launched this series in January, I said I wanted to notice “simple, modest, authentic examples of respect among people I interact with daily.” Here’s what I have been noticing.

######

I stand outside the closed door, leaning against the opposite wall, halfway down the corridor in a skilled nursing facility. Soft light, quiet female voices, and the occasional deep moan escape into the darkened hallway from behind the door. It is midnight; a passing nurse pauses before me and raises a questioning eyebrow. 

“I’m a hospice volunteer waiting to sit with, uh, keep vigil with Mr. X.”

 “They’re changing him, giving him his meds, and making him more comfortable.” 

I nod. “I’ll wait here ’til they’re finished.” Nurses handling one’s naked body, even at the point of death when we imagine inhibitions have dissolved, is one thing. Having one’s wasted body exposed to a perfect stranger, whether or not you are aware of her presence, is another. I assume modesty does not dissolve at the end of life and do not intrude until Mr. X is dry, clean, settled, and covered up to his chest with a light sheet and warm cotton blanket.

When I step into the room, the remaining nurse gently touches the unconscious man’s shoulder.

“Does that feel better, Sir? I will give you a little more medicine to help you breathe more easily. I’ll just put a couple of drops inside your cheek. That’s it.” She positions the dropper inside his gaping mouth and slowly rubs his throat below his jaw. “Good, now swallow if you can.” He does.  

Before leaving the room, she fills me in on what she knows about her dying patient—his former profession, family members who kept vigil earlier, and his interests. Then, she points to various objects in the room—the essential things his wife wants him to have near at the end: Classical CDs, a small CD player, a book of poetry, and photos. “I’ll be back to check on you in an hour, Sir,” she whispers close to his ear before gliding through the half-closed door. 

The room is dark, the dim light from the adjoining lavatory casting shadows around the bed. I put some Bach in the player, turn the volume low, place a straight-backed chair next to the bed, collect the book of poetry, and sit. I touch Sir’s lower arm through the sheet and introduce myself, giving my first name and saying I will be sitting with him for a few hours. His breathing does not change as I touch him or speak. He is deep in and far along on the journey to the end of his physical life. I quietly read poem after poem, pause for a few minutes of silence between them, and watch Sir breathe. Soon his breath becomes ragged and uneven; it occasionally stops for up to thirty seconds and then begins again, shallow and irregular.

Over the next few hours, the kind nurse comes and goes several times, always speaking softly and respectfully to Sir, touching him gently, and telling him in advance about every act of care she will perform. No callousness, no surprises, no assuming he is no longer entirely there. I watch her ministrations with awe, a tear coming to the corner of my eye at witnessing such tenderness.

######

My friend is slumped in her hospital bed, several floors up in a massive building on Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess campus. She is declining rapidly. The plan is to release her home to hospice care the following day. Today, she shares a room with a mystery woman behind a drawn curtain. During my less than an hour stay, nurses come and go from the room every few minutes. 

My friend is on a breathing machine called a BIPAP, a form of non-invasive ventilation therapy. She can watch its monitor, see the oxygen level in her bloodstream, turn it off when it reaches the desired level, and remove the oxygen mask from her face. But a nurse must come to turn it back on again and reposition the mask to seal it around her mouth and nose. This procedure happens four or five times while I am there. The nurse’s calm composure, concerned smile, and respectful tone astonish me.

The patient behind the curtain is worried that she has not received the proper dosage of her medication. Another nurse repeatedly and patiently explains the doctor’s orders, the times she was medicated, and when she is next due. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the patient thanks her and apologizes for being such a nuisance. The nurse responds, “Not at all; this is important. You should always question us if you feel something is amiss.”

While the BIPAP breathes for my friend, she closes her eyes and rests. She removes the mask when she can breathe on her own, and we talk about her difficult life, sadness, fear of pain, and death. She praises her husband for the care he has given her over the last several years. We say we love each other and are grateful for our friendship. We hold hands in silence. When her eyes are closed, I gaze at her—the whole picture of her crumpled body amid bunched-up sheets, her swollen hands, and her weary face. I think, someday, this will be me.

The nurse returns and gently repositions my friend’s oxygen mask, punches buttons, and the BIPAP whirrs again. Then this guardian of my friend’s humanity glides back into the hallway and on to answer the next call bell—respect in motion.

######

For those who die after a long decline in health, the dissolution of respectableness can be one of the most challenging aspects of the journey. Gradually we lose many of the attributes that once earned us respect, approval, and acceptance. As the looks wither, the brain slows and dims, and control of bodily functions dissolves, power over external forces diminishes. We are no longer the sisters, mothers, professionals, neighbors, philanthropists, or activists we once were; no longer the persons others, and we ourselves, considered worthy of respect. In extremis, we will rely on pure, unearned, free respect. Will it be offered? Can we give it now, in anticipation?

Respect Amid Conflict

This is not about Russia and Ukraine. Or is it? You decide.

I find myself in the middle of a conflict. A group I joined several years ago, a haven of peacefulness and mutual support, has encountered a situation that has created disagreement, discomfort, and discord among its members. I’m not going to identify this group or describe the conflict in detail. Still, I will say that the situation developed gradually, in response to the conditions of COVID, without any malintent on the part of anyone.

As with most conflicts, some members are on either end of the spectrum of opinion, and others cluster near the middle. Possibly there are some able and willing to change their behavior to accommodate others, and some unwilling or unable to do so. Some identify their needs as vital and urgent, and others, without strong feelings, are willing to go along with a range of possible outcomes.

The group has a tradition of consensual decision-making. The decision we make will determine the survival of the group and its future incarnation. So, with the best of intentions on everyone’s part, we have entered into a careful, measured process. Our approach involves the honest but gentle expression of feelings and attitudes, listening carefully to each member’s views, trying to understand all perspectives, and seeking a consensus about moving forward. We are encouraged to speak truthfully, listen compassionately, and keep an open mind and heart—hallmarks and essential characteristics of respect.

As I’ve reflected on the conflict, my reaction to it, and the thoughts and feelings of my fellow group members, two dimensions crucial to the consensus-seeking process have stood out for me. First is the vital importance of digging deep inside my own heart to recognize my motivations. Depending on what I discover, this recognition might be comfortable or not, but I owe it to myself and the group out of respect for us all. Second, understanding others. A group member so aptly expressed this as walking in the other’s shoes.

 As I’ve listened to group members describe their experience and express their feelings, I’ve “felt their pain,” so to speak. And, understanding their discomfort, even suffering, I see them as worthy of respect. Therefore, I wish that I might do whatever is possible to ease their distress without abandoning my essential needs. A sense of flexibility and generosity has arisen from trying to see the situation from the perspective of others.

However, by relentless examination of my motivations, I’ve discovered that, while there are some compromises I am happy to make, I draw the line at one accommodation, which I cannot adopt for my well-being. Yet, there is an enormous amount of fertile space between my one need and the needs of others.

I don’t know whether we will reach a consensus or what the outcome of the decision-making process will be. I am trying to stay in it, moment by moment, without predicting or prejudging, and with as much respect for myself and the other group members as I can muster. I am trying to let go of the less important, my need to be understood, and the ridiculous notion that my viewpoint is the complete one. I’m trying to embrace the idea that neither the current situation nor its outcome is static, that everything and everyone are changing all the time.

So, I re-iterate, this short reflection on respect amid conflict is not remotely related to the situation between Ukraine and Russia. Right? The aggression, violence, and impacts are wildly disproportionate in the two circumstances. But I wonder if there is any predicament, however grave, that cannot benefit from sincere self-examination and the attempt to understand the perspective of others—respect.

Just Like Me – Respecting Difficult People

In their 2018 book Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush introduce a practice geared to generate understanding, respect, and compassion for others. It’s called Just Like Me. While it can be used with friends, acquaintances, or neutral persons, I believe it is particularly beneficial for identifying with those we think are radically different from us and for whom we find it difficult to feel sympathy.

Calling to mind a person we dislike, disagree with, hate, or hold in contempt, we are encouraged to repeat the following phrases: This person

… has a body and a mind, just like me.

… has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.

… has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.

… has at some time been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.

… has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.

… worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.

… will die, just like me.

… has longed for friendship, just like me.

… is learning about life, just like me.

… wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.

… wants to be content with what life has given them, just like me.

… wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.

… wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.

… wishes to be happy, just like me.

… wishes to be loved, just like me.

I first encountered this practice on a retreat during 2020. I cannot now recall whether the retreat came before or shortly after the US Presidential election, but when the facilitator asked us to call to mind a difficult person, Donald Trump popped into my head immediately. Donald Trump is nothing like me; I protested internally! I quickly searched for another, less challenging person, but I could not quickly come up with anyone. So, I closed my eyes, called up a mental image of President Trump, and began repeating the phrases silently after the facilitator. I encourage you to go back and read them now with Trump or any challenging person in mind.

I was astounded by how many times I could say with sincerity that Mr. Trump was “just like me!”  I must admit I had some difficulty with “has felt unworthy or inadequate,” “has longed for friendship,” “is learning about life,” “wants to be caring and kind to others,” and “wants to be content with what life has given them.” However, I could embrace enough statements for the exercise to reveal our likeness and soften my heart slightly. Perhaps removing the word “just” would make the practice even more palatable.

Next comes the even more challenging pursuit of wishing the difficult person well, using phrases including:

I wish this person to be free from pain and suffering.

I wish this person to be peaceful and happy.

I wish this person to be loved because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

The point is to consider respecting the other, not for what they have said or done, but because I acknowledge their humanness—their actions and words may have arisen from very human desires, fears, suffering, and losses, as do mine. In this practice, respect does not equate with approval, praise, agreement, or even tolerance but, instead, involves understanding and empathy. Therefore, treating the difficult person with respect may entail giving them the benefit of the doubt and offering compassion rather than mockery, rebuke, denunciation, or bitter criticism.

“And what would such respect look like concerning Mr. Trump?” I ask myself. Perhaps it would involve refraining from posting unflattering pictures of him on Facebook or liking jokes at his expense on social media. Maybe it would rule out repeating plausible but unsubstantiated stories about his actions or words or stoking fires of anger and hatred against him. Such restraint would mean forgoing delicious opportunities for cleverness and self-righteousness. 

On the positive side, it means offering genuine good wishes for healing, clarity, and humility, hoping that his heart will open with understanding and compassion, just as I hope that mine will open. I am convinced that sending positive energy in his direction cannot do the slightest harm.

Does all of this sound pollyannaish? Then take Trump out of the equation and substitute your problematic next-door neighbor, the family member who disrupts every holiday gathering, the boss who criticizes everything you do, or the friend who breaks your confidence. Even the dog who won’t stop barking! How can a dog be just like me? Think danger, fear, boredom, confusion, pain, past trauma, and family heritage.

Religious and secular platitudes about this “just like me” concept include The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Buddhist idea of interbeing and interdependence (no left, no right, no up, no down, no you, no me) also captures the notion. The once-popular song Walk A Mile In My Shoes suggests how we gain respect for those we find difficult or different. (I’d encourage you to listen to this cool old music video.)

The bottom line—to respect those who do not seem to deserve our respect, we must see what we have in common with them. Yes, we are different, but what essential qualities unite us? And how can we act respectfully while disagreeing, resisting, and taking a stand against our opponents?

Building Trust with Respect

One of the people I have come to respect deeply over the last two years is Dr. Nirav Shah, head of Maine’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control.)

Almost weekly, since March 2020, he has held a press briefing on Maine Public Radio, taking questions off the cuff from media journalists in Maine in an attempt to keep the public informed about COVID. Frequently, Maine’s governor, Janet Mills, and its Commissioner of Health and Human Services, Jane Lambrew, have joined Dr. Shah on these broadcasts. Together they have answered questions, explained CDC guidelines and recommendations, and encouraged Maine’s citizens to do everything possible to stay safe during the COVID pandemic.

I have been impressed time and again by Dr. Shah’s communication skills and his command of COVID scientific findings and statistics. In my mind, he is the consummate communicator. He speaks lucidly, intelligently, respectfully, and empathetically. I have only once or twice heard him ruffled by not having information at his fingertips. Throughout the last nearly two years, he has never criticized or showed anger or frustration with those who refuse to follow mandates and guidelines, deny the seriousness of the pandemic, or continue to resist vaccination. He has the proverbial “patience of Job.”

On January 3, he demonstrated his genuine care, concern, and respect for the people of Maine by participating in a Maine Public Radio Broadcast—Maine Calling, hosted by Jennifer Rooks. (Maine CDC director Nirav Shah addresses questions about the pandemic, particularly about vaccine hesitancy) His purpose for this call-in program was to open a dialogue with those not vaccinated against COVID; his stated goal was to build trust. When I began listening to the broadcast, I was nervous that none of those opposed to vaccinations would call in, the ultimate slap in the face to trust-building. However, callers, emailers, and tweeters engaged with Dr. Shah for nearly an hour. Because he entered into an authentic dialogue with each one, asking genuinely curious questions about their views, assumptions, and situations, relatively few callers got on the air. Some were angry, afraid, and belligerent; others were open and curious.

While he acknowledged and lamented that vaccinations had become politicized, he avoided political debate or criticizing others who engage in such discussion. Instead, he stayed with the “facts”—the statistics, the scientific models, and studies. One could hear the sincere emotion in his voice as he spoke about Mainers who had died of COVID. He listened, expressed understanding, acknowledged agreement where he could. Though he didn’t say these words, I could imagine him thinking, “I can’t do anything to change the politics, nor can I force anyone to follow CDC guidance. All I can do is build trust and try to persuade.”

As the pandemic has unfolded, scientific information and best-practice recommendations have changed and developed repeatedly. As a result, early guidance was superseded by the findings of further studies. Dr. Shah acknowledged that the evolving nature of the scientific understanding of COVID has led to confusion and fed into mistrust of public officials and their recommendations. This broadcast, he said, was one attempt to rebuild trust. It was worth the try.

Such a genuine, careful, skilled effort at trust-building could only come from one who respects his fellow Mainers. Dr. Shah demonstrates that he believes each of us wants to do the right thing. Therefore, he is willing to invest the time to understand the convictions of others and is hopeful that offering his best knowledge and sincere concern will make a difference.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast at the link above. Some have heard me say that I wish Nirav Shah would run for President of the United States. I am saying that I want all politicians and public servants to demonstrate the respect that he does for the people they serve.

Noticing Respect: Intro to a new series of posts

In 2022, I want to offer twelve vignettes, one for each month, that illustrate dimensions of respect. These profiles will emerge from persons, encounters, activities, or events that I have noticed during the month. I intend to attend to respect in as broad a swath of experience as possible, so I’m asking myself to see it from new and varied angles.

Professor Harry Lewis of Harvard University, a man whom I respect and from whom I, in turn, have experienced kindness and respect, suggested the title for my blog, With All Due Respect, five years ago. Shortly after I launched, Harry and I had a brief conversation about what the word “due” means concerning respect, whether everyone is due or deserves respect. The noun “due” is defined as a person’s right, something owed. To deserve something is to earn or merit it.

In an early post, Harry and I exchanged comments about respect as a response to human dignity. Since then, those who believe dignity is inherent in all humans have been sorely challenged by events at home in America and abroad. Wars and withdrawal from wars, unprecedented political polarization, hatemongering, challenges to the rule of law, repeated assaults on democracy, and incidents of police brutality have strained our impulses toward respect. A pandemic that heightens our awareness of inequality and unfairness and pits the individual’s rights against the common good has sapped our good intentions about respectfulness. Undeniable and devastating examples of climate change coupled with intransigent denial of climate science’s findings make us impatient with the deniers. A plethora of incredible conspiracy theories has stymied our intent to treat those who espouse them with regard. As a result, it has become harder and harder to offer respect to those whose attitudes and behaviors differ so dramatically and consequentially from our own—to see these others as due or deserving of respectful courtesy.

 Is there such a thing as unconditional respect? Is it possible to respect someone doing demonstrable harm to people, creatures, and the earth you love? And is treating someone respectfully fundamentally different from respecting him, her, or it?

Because I don’t have answers for these questions, I am thrown back to noticing simple, modest, authentic examples of respect among people I interact with daily. This series of posts will explore instances and characteristics of respect that I see around me. I invite you to offer reflections on occasions of respect you are observing in your surroundings. I hope that by doing so, we will water the seeds of respect in our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions.