“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”– Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist
“I got scared,” the young man told the two EMTs. “He hasn’t moved in half an hour.”
I was at a downtown coffee shop in the large city where I live, waiting for friends to arrive. Shortly after I had sat down, the EMTs had walked through the door, and the young man – a server at the coffee shop – had waved them over to the booth in front of mine.
He pointed to the man seated – or rather, slumped – in the booth. From where I sat, all I could see was the back of his head. His hair was long, black and unkempt. All conversation in the coffee shop had ceased.
“I tried shaking him and slapping his hand,” he said, “but I got no response.”
“Did he come in alone?” asked one of the EMTs in a low voice.
“He came in with a regular. She bought him breakfast and left.”
“Do you know him?” asked the other EMT. “Seen him before?”
“He’s homeless,” responded the server. “I’ve seen him on the streets.”
One of the EMTs leaned near and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Buddy?” he said and gave the man a shake. The man slid slowly to the right, and his head made a clunk sound when it hit the wall. Everyone gasped. I could see people reaching for their phones. Much to our surprise, the man in the booth came around – turning his head and looking up at the EMTs. With a grunt, he attempted to sit up, dropping his arm into my side of the booth. The gnarled knuckles were covered with grease and egg yolk, leading me to believe that he had eaten his breakfast with his hands. With some effort, he righted himself and smiled.
“You’d better come with us,” said the lead EMT and, with some persuading, got the man out of his seat and out the door. The young server quickly wiped down the booth.
“That was a little scary,” I commented as he passed me a menu.
“But not unusual,” he replied. “That guy needs more than pity and a free breakfast.”
People fascinate me. Sometimes, as with the man in the coffee shop, they also confuse, frighten and sadden me. If we are truly the architects of our own destiny, what’s the story with the homeless? Are they just poor architects? And what about self-esteem? Are the poor, the homeless and the hopeless simply the victims of a poor self-image, or is there more to it?
There are plenty of theories concerning homelessness. Some studies suggest that the seeds of homelessness are planted early in childhood due to poor early programming. Depending upon upbringing, children grow to understand the world around them and learn critical social rules and behaviours appropriate for survival – or they don’t, with dire consequences.
Further studies claim that one in four homeless people is in their position because of unemployment or lack of marketable skills. Other studies suggest an inability to socialize leads to loneliness and isolation. Further research concludes that most homeless people suffer from addictions or mental health issues. A 1997 study of 300 shelter users in Toronto revealed that two-thirds of respondents reported a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness.
I don’t confess to have the answers, but I have sought understanding. I know pity is only positive when it prompts us to understand the suffering of others and do something about it. When we lose our dreams, I know that it’s easy to be drawn into a dark and unforgiving place. Whatever the reason or reasons, one thing is sure: the consequences are devastating. Homelessness damages an individual’s resilience, self-confidence and self-esteem.
I think an often unrealized aspect of healthy self-esteem and the missing component in the lives of many who go astray is hope. It’s essential to recognize that hopelessness is only the first step toward examining the more critical issue of why people lose hope.
In his book, The Psychology of Hope, C.R. Snyder, a pioneer in positive psychology, says we lose hope for a variety of reasons. If we were neglected or “never nourished” as children, we might develop a negative self-image. If we lose our connections, we risk losing our identity. These broken connections can result from death, divorce or job loss. If we are victimized – abused and belittled – we may lose any sense of control. And one contributing factor that many of us can relate to is burnout. When we become exhausted and overwhelmed by life, developing a negative or cynical perspective becomes easy. Burnout can lead us to defeat.
To me, hopelessness stems from the lack of awareness of any alternative. Lack of awareness of a better choice is the same as having no choice at all. Without hope, there is nothing. No awareness. No better choices. No way out of a sad and regrettable existence. You can’t help people wake up and embrace a new tomorrow unless you can help them rekindle the flame of hope. When we start to feel hopeful, we start to see possibilities for change and healing.
Perhaps Mother Teresa expressed it best. “We sometimes think that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
I know people who devote their lives to bringing hope to the hopeless. They open their arms and their hearts – provide food, shelter and a kind word. I say thank you to those people.
Perhaps as we become strong and healthy in our esteem – when we become truly awake and self-aware – we will choose to be a beacon of hope for others. That is my hope.