Deserving of Dignity

[written in Nottingham, England, while in graduate school]

I love serving so much because it brings me face to face with the people in this world who don’t get the love they deserve. It gives me an opportunity to try to give them at least a little bit of what they have been denied. I often feel that what I offer is minimal and not nearly sufficient, but I am also aware that a lot of the seeds we plant grow roots much deeper than we can see.

The connections I feel as a result of serving aren’t always feel-good, heart-warming ones. Sometimes when I realize the struggles that others have to endure, tears of “that’s not fair” well up inside. I never have, but sometimes I want to just sit with someone who I am serving and cry with them. I want to transfer some of their hurt into my heart, to ease their burden and just share the moment through falling tears.

This morning at the Arches was one of the first times I have come close to crying in front of someone I serve. A beautiful, well-dressed woman came in with an older woman (who I assume is her mother). She sat in our waiting area looking very out of place; she didn’t come across as snobby or scared, but rather . . . uncomfortable. A lot of our other clients are familiar with places like the Arches: they understand the atmosphere and fit in well with one another. This particular woman had obviously never needed the kind of help that the Arches offers, and I don’t think she knew quite how to present herself.

Within moments of meeting her, I learned that she had just left her husband because of domestic abuse. She and her fourteen year old daughter had moved into a shelter for abused women and their children, and she had come to the Arches to get the furniture and other household items that she had left behind. For much of our conversation, she was composed, though obviously troubled. Sighs or long pauses or finger and thumb pressed against her temple lingered between bits of our dialogue as she tried to wrap her mind around what she was saying and doing. Clearly a sweet and grateful woman, she thanked me several times for my “help” (again, though, what was I really doing? I basically just showed her the available furniture, dishes, curtains, etc that other people had been generous enough to donate) and really did appreciate that she could come here to get what she needed. At one point, though, while we were looking for a kitchen table and chairs, tears silently slid down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she whispered immediately. “It’s just so hard to go from having everything to having nothing.” And I stood there, witnessing this woman try to re-create a makeshift life for herself and her daughter, and the best response I could give her was a heartfelt “No, no, please take your time. It’s fine. We have all morning.” I turned around quickly to fight back my own tears; it’s not often that someone I serve actually cries in front of me. They are often very honest about the trials they have endured/are enduring, but most speak with an admirable resilience and determination in their voice. This woman, though, was clearly clinging on to the shattered edge of a life that she had once known, scared to let go but knowing that she couldn’t stay.

After witnessing this woman involuntarily bare her brokenness, compassion lacerated my heart and brought forth an increased sensitivity. I spoke with a couple of my favorite old men who regularly come in, and although we laughed and told jokes, sadness characterized my thoughts. This was some one’s grandfather. This man belongs to someone. No old man should have to walk miles in dirty clothes unsuitable for the weather to get a free cup of tea and a food parcel to last him for the next week. Neither should any old woman. Or any person of any age. I thought about the adorable little girl of about five who I saw at the Arches last month. A different project worker was serving the little girl’s mother so I didn’t get to hear their story, but I did see them walk by, and I could tell by their walk that both mother and child had accepted that this was their life. They didn’t slump their shoulders or walk with their chins down; no, they certainly had pride and what I hope I can accurately call happiness. However, they also didn’t walk any trace of defiance or protest. I saw no signs of a fight against poverty in their lives. I just saw them walk by with donated clothes in their bags, and bright, sparkling fuchsia shoes on the girl’s feet.

“I like your shoes!” I cheerfully told the little girl as she walked by. And I did. But I also hated that she wore them as she walked through a life that she shouldn’t have to live. Childhood should not be characterized by have-nots. I could tell that this girl was loved; her mother was obviously doing all she could to take care of her, so I was glad for that. I just didn’t want her mother to feel she had to surrender to a system that has left them lacking. And I didn’t want this girl to grow up without the abundance of life’s goodness available to her, with only her fuchsia shoes to bring light in her life. The two of them deserve dignity. They all do: the old men I laughed with, the beautiful woman I wanted to cry with, each and every one of my clients from AIRS last year, the hungry and homeless and mentally ill people I walk by on city streets, and of course the millions of people who I never have and never will meet who have stories of perseverance they shouldn’t have to display. The heartbreaking truth of the world, though, is that even though everyone is deserving of dignity, it is denied to so many. I wish I knew how to show them where to find it from within–that way they wouldn’t need the world.

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