As I woke on the 2nd of January, I was finding it hard to drag myself out of bed for the first day of the rest of the year. A cold rain was falling outside and my bed was warm and cozy. The idea of regaining focus on work and normal life was a little hard to grasp at that moment, so I lingered and looked at Facebook.
First thing I saw, sadly, was a video a friend shared in which Bryce Gowdy’s mother describes the last hours of his life with her and his brothers. Gowdy is the football star that was headed to Georgia Tech on a full ride who was hit by a train and killed early Monday morning. Her pain and the tragedy of the circumstances she describes are devastating to watch. I almost couldn’t stick it out, but felt that the least anyone could do is to try to understand the uncomfortable details of the life that lead to his death.
You see, Gowdy’s family was homeless. His mother explains that she had a job, but she wasn’t being paid on time or in full and they were struggling to keep things together. When Bryce talked to his mom that day she could tell that he was not right, he was talking in paranoid and detached terms that she couldn’t really understand. She had struggles of her own and she told him that he was going to have to get it together, that she didn’t have the strength to help him.
As she reflects on their lives, detailing how she had begged for help for herself and her sons and how overwhelming the family’s troubles were in the face of very few resources, you can’t help but cry for the ugly truth of abject desperation that few of us really understand.
As a community, we have been debating solutions for our own neighbors who are dealing with homelessness and mental illness. The two often go hand in hand and, many times, addiction both fuels and is fed by the black hole created by the absence of hope. Solutions for this compound problem are hard, but it is clear that the only way we can even begin to approach the issue is to put our judgments aside and uncomfortably see the faces of those that are struggling.
As I processed the pain of Gowdy’s tragic tale, I happened upon another friend’s post that described a very different outcome to a similar story.
The second story is an essay on the website Medium titled “I’m a Little Too Fat, a Little Too Giving. I Think I Know Why.” The essay by Kristine Levine describes a time when her mother moved her to the Oregon coast, attempting a fresh start and escape from her alcoholic habits that had left the pair homeless and empty-handed.
Her mother moved them into a small cottage and began to search for a job within walking distance, as the car they’d arrived in had broken down. She bought a bag of potatoes and a bottle of ketchup and the two survived on this little bit for over a month. No job found and the promised $75 child support check having yet to arrive, her mother finally and desperately walked down the road to a larger cottage and knocked on the door, saying this to the woman who answered the door:
“This is my daughter, Kristine,” my mother stated. “We have no food. She’s had nothing to eat but potatoes for a month, and now we don’t even have any of those left. I don’t care about myself, but could you please give her something to eat?”
The rest of the story is full of the very grace you would have hoped for Bryce Gowdy and his family, and the outcome is far different. That woman, without pause, packed up the pot roast and every bit of the dinner she had just placed on the table and gave it to them. She didn’t ask her husband and he didn’t question her decision. They simply gave the very best they had to offer, what was good enough for them was all that would do for their desperate guests.
That couple turned out to be friends with the owners of a restaurant where the mother had applied. They talked them into hiring her, then became evening caretakers for Levine while her mother worked. Levine’s life was forever changed by these simple acts of kindness, and she talks about how the experience has helped her teach her daughters to give only the best in a way that honors the absolute worth of those who are receiving.
Truly caring for those less fortunate than us leaves no room for pride or judgement or greed.
The juxtaposition of these two stories showed me that the only way that we can change the lives of those in need is to see in them a value they cannot see in themselves, and that usually means humbling our own sense of “rightness”. It is not easy, but as we move forward with our community’s response to the issue of homelessness we must imagine the struggles they are dealing with in a way that breaks us, that brings us to the pain we think we can imagine, but cannot. We must put ourselves in their shoes and give, as if.