The last two weeks have been, well, busy.
I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of having something you wrote end up on half a million computer screens in dozens of countries, but it isn’t something I would wish on you.
The worst part of it is that the overwhelming majority of the people who read what you wrote have no context to process what you wrote. They don’t know anything about you or the incident, other than what you wrote on that page.
And the media takes the story and rewrites it, often with no input from you. And even more millions see that version.
So, for example, instead of being professionals who have engaged the food insecure and those experiencing homelessness full time for six years, we became “church volunteers.”
And the comments? Dear God, the comments. Just a note – no one has ever, ever said, “I am glad I read the comments.”
One thing I have discovered is that apparently, homelessness is much like politics and religion, in that someone with no experience and no training has no problem believing they are fully qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.
Like this anonymous comment:
Everyone wants their feel-good fix for handing out food in the park to the “needy,” but when it comes to the long-term negative side effects of their actions, they all want to bury their heads in the sand. If you knew that your actions were only making the problem worse, would you still do it just because it made you feel good?
There is so much I want to say about this comment, but I want to focus on just one line – on just two words, actually – because I have heard this over and over since the Saturday we were not permitted to share food with our friends.
To be sure, there are ways to bring food out and it be a feel-good experience. Here’s how:
You should make it a point to not make eye contact. Don’t worry about the quality of the food. After all, “they” should be happy for whatever “they” get. Make sure everyone in your group wears matching t-shirts, so the folks you are giving food to know that they do not belong to your group. Be sure to stand behind the table that separates you and them, so they don’t try to think you want to have a relationship.
And whatever you do, don’t come back next week. Wait a few months so they forget what you look like, or that you acted like you cared about them as anything other than a project you check off between Sunday School and soccer practice. All of that combines to be a Feel-Good Fix.
But the truth is this: if you are serious about this work and the real lives of the people you will meet, you cannot feel good. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you do this work and it makes you feel good for pretty much any extended period of time, you are doing it wrong.
Because if you can come out week after week and watch George wither away from meth addiction or see that Sheli has a new black eye from the (current) abusive partner or hear how the police arrested Frankie for sleeping under an awning to get out of the rain or know that the sandwich you just handed Pablo is the last thing he will get to eat until the soup kitchen opens tomorrow at 11 a.m. and that makes you feel GOOD?
Then you are a monster.
Of course, there is a third path. Don’t come out once a year for a feel-good experience, and don’t devote your life to walking in the dark places on the slimmest of hopes that you can shine a weak light into the darkness. Instead, you can comment, anonymously, on the Internet about people you do not know and cannot be bothered to get to know.
If that is the path you choose, I wonder if it gives you a feel-good fix.