Today, I had the very humbling experience of touring a non-profit agency whose main objective is to provide homeless teenagers a safe place to sleep, a meal when they need one and to help them transition out of homelessness and hopefully learn to lead a life off the streets.
To say it was eye opening, and heart breaking, would be a colossal understatement.
Here’s the thing. I consider myself a pretty compassionate and giving person. I worry and care about others. I try to frequently volunteer my time and money where I can. I like to think of myself as “aware,” not naïve. I like to think of myself as a fairly selfless person, one who is willing to help others. But then I re-read the first paragraph of this post, and then the second. And reality sets in.
Preface: I don’t like political rants. This is not one of those. I do not like confrontation or spreading negativity. This is not meant for that. I’m smart enough to know that we all have strong opinions about all that is going on in the world and no blog post, Facebook rant, politician, religious leader or face-to-face discussion is likely going to change that. So please do not misinterpret this is any of the above.
This is, quite simply, an experience I want to share. Need to share, even, as writing helps me process things.
I walked through that facility today – first, the “dorm” room with two tiny beds, some empty shelves and bare walls that will provide a temporary home to a likely weary, scared, broken, lost, ill or tired teenager, then the “activity” room with worn-out bean bag chairs, a “lounge” area, where two teenagers broke into a fight and one had the other in a headlock, to the “station” where teens can pop in to grab a bowl of spaghetti and spend a couple hours sitting on a couch instead of a street, and then to a “sorting” room where all those coats I so proudly bagged and donated from my closet a few weeks ago lay both scattered and hanging in rows, to provide but a thin layer of protection for a teenager against the freezing cold, rain, snow and wind they’ll face living on the street – and I couldn’t look a single person in the eye.
I can’t remember a time I’ve ever felt more profoundly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to look at the kids there, because I didn’t want them to think I was gawking or judging. But also because I didn’t know what I could possibly say or do that wouldn’t seem condescending. And I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought about us parading through in our business clothes, a mere field trip, to hear about and see the terrible things they have to encounter on a daily basis.
I cannot even find the words to describe what I was feeling. Guilt? Helplessness? Pity? Sadness? All of the above? It is absolutely overwhelming to me to try and comprehend what it must be like for these kids. I recognize how lucky I am to have been raised knowing full well how loved I was (and am). Never lacking hugs or kisses or an abundance of love and support. Never going without a meal or hot bath or warm bed to crawl into.
It is heartbreaking to imagine how it must feel to live a life without all of those things. And it is painfully easy to ignore. Sure, we all read and share tear-jerking stories and photos of children in need (locally, nationally andinternationally), and yes, we feel genuinely sad about it for a moment. But then we head to dinner with friends, or crawl in bed for a good night’s sleep, and the empathy fades. Not because we’re bad people, but simply because we have it SO GOOD. Because it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around the realities that so many face. Because we feel bad, but we don’t know what to do about it.
And I wish I could say I have a brilliant solution, but I don’t.
I just think it’s so unbelievably important to remind ourselves of this reality. To be humbled. To gain perspective. To have empathy for others and to spread love and hope instead of hate and anger. This life we lead is not guaranteed, and I hope, with all my heart, that occasionally I can make a difference in the life of someone who does need love and hope. And that we can all do that. So that just maybe, one day, there won’t be a need for coat drives and homeless centers for youth.
I realized today that I am living a charmed life. If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you are, too. And as we all prepare for our Pinterest-like holidays, fretting over our Christmas decorations, over-spending on gifts, traveling to see friends and family and gorging ourselves on more food than we know what to do with, I just want to encourage you to take a moment to be thankful for the life you’re leading.
I’m not suggesting we should feel guilty for enjoying our lives and the holidays and our families. Not by any means. I’m also not suggesting that we’re all living carefree lives free of struggle or worry. I know that, at any given time, we’re all facing our own difficult battles. I’m merely asking that you not take what you do have for granted. That you say a prayer of thankfulness for all that you have. That you say a prayer for the millions of people who are without the homes, food, friends and family that we are so fortunate to have. A prayer for those who are hurting, lost and in need. And to take action where you can.
Choose to be thankful, choose to be helpful, choose to truly keep your eyes open. This world is so much bigger than any one of us.