On Shame and Homelessness

“Embarrassment is when you feel that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is when you feel that you are something wrong.”

–          Debra S. Espinor  EdD

Jesus travels and lives among those with jewel-encased iPods, and among those who sleep underneath overpasses. Jesus eats with CEOs in five-star restaurants, and he dines with the dumpster-diving orphans of Mexico City. Jesus does not discriminate. Whoever I am, I know that I have a friend in Jesus.

It is everyone else that I have a harder time with.

Last night on my way to Minneapolis from Seattle, I stopped at 8:30PM at the mostly-empty Home Depot in Bozeman, Montana to open up my tailgate and cook up some grub (Rice and bean burrito).

While I was starting the stove, someone asked me, “Are you working?”

“What?” I responded. Oftentimes we say that when we understand what someone says, but what they said doesn’t make sense.

“Are you working?” she repeated.

Does it look like I’m working? Do I have a uniform on? Can you see me cooking?

But then I got it. She wanted to know if I was employed.

What did it matter to her? Was I worthy of compassion if I was homeless and employed, but not if unemployed?

“No.” I responded. “I’m on vacation!”

And I felt shame. Clearly I’m homeless in her eyes. (And in actuality I kind of am- While I would be welcome at any number of family members’ homes, I am between destinations on an intentional road trip that I planed for after I resigned from Bank of America.  I have to address of my own- no apartment that I am paying rent to. And I don’t have any sort of formal job at the moment).

But why did I feel shame? Because it is wrong not to have a home. It is wrong to be openly homeless in public. I was a disgrace, a blemish on the city of Bozeman.

A short time later another man with documents in his approached me, asking if I was part of the night crew.

“No…” was my response.

He looked at my tailgate, with the camp stove, pot, and various utensils. “Someone told me that you had started a fire out here. Is that right?”

I looked at my stove. “Well, not a fire!… I am heating up some water with my camp stove.”

“Okay. You’re just fixing some food, and then you’ll be gone?”

“Yes.” I answered.

He considered the situation for a moment. I considered if he was going to ask me to leave.

“Okay.” He said, turning to walk away.

“I’m sorry!” I said, but he said not to worry about it.

I’ve wondering how my stint of living out of my truck would go, and I was expecting some of this. I’m glad that I’m having the experience, because it’s enabling me to somewhat better identify with the truly homeless.

Traveling broadens your horizons. Most people know that. But what that means is that your head opens up for more ideas- more diverse ideas. You start holding onto ideas less firmly, and are more willing to accept new viewpoints and ideas. Perhaps you know someone from a small town who hasn’t gone far from it much. How does he compare to your friend who was born in another country and has lived in several places? Which one is more dogmatic, and which is more accepting?

(To clarify, I’m making generalizations. And I do believe in absolute Truth, though it is impossible to know it in its entirety on this side of life.)

We all need to travel and experience life on the other side of the tracks, so that we can come closer to Truth and compassion.  When we do so, we become able to look compassionately on those cooking their dinners in parking lots.  When we find that compassion, we are enabled to avoid the negative self-talk that hinders progress when we find ourselves beset by life’s challenges.

Provisions- Truck Bed
This is everything I have to get me through December and 5,000 miles.

Provisions- Front Seat

2 thoughts on “On Shame and Homelessness”

  1. Alex, I’m so excited for you. What a great experience. I understand that you will be coming to Chicago. If you’d like a place to stay you are definitely welcome to crash at our house for as long as you want. We are about 2 hours north of where Ben is or an hour north of Chicago. debra.—@—.com or 224——-

    1. Thanks Deb! I’m not sure yet if I’ll make it out that far but if I do I would definitely like to see you!

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