America’s Strange Relationship with Human Need

When I lived on the Upper West Side I knew a woman who went by the name of Sis, though it wasn’t her real name. She slept in a folding chair on the sidewalk, under whatever scaffolding was available, surrounded by a growing number of shopping carts loaded with her stuff. She was about 65, maybe black, maybe Hispanic; maybe a little of both. On the long warm days of summer, she sat in the park and wrote paragraphs of tiny, indecipherable cursive in notebooks. Her glasses were broken, and hung lopsided at the end of her nose.

She always asked about me and remembered what was going on in my life, though she had plenty of reasons not to care. She didn’t appear to be mentally ill. She wasn’t an addict. She was just Sis.

Winters were brutal. Once I saw her on a 20-degree night stuffing newspapers into her boots to protect herself from the wind. She wouldn’t accept help or shelter, and preferred, as always, to chat as if she weren’t stuffing newspapers into her boots. Cold night, isn’t it?

Sis blew up any stereotype I’d had of who is homeless. Talking to her, we were just two people, one not unlike the other except one of us would sleep in a bed that night.

Her stark need and our discomfort with it, along with her refusal of all help, highlighted the awful and peculiar relationship this nation has with human need. Maybe it has something to do with capitalism, which seems modeled after English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s phrase, “Survival of the fittest.” Capitalism at least allows for social mobility, if you can do it. But if you can’t, there is no provision, or, at best, grim provision for you: the projects, poorhouses and state mental institutions, for example; nursing homes and orphanages. 

Because a person is supposed to be able to make it in this country if they work hard, and because the unbridled pursuit of material wealth is so admired, we aren’t prepared for people like Sis. When we see someone in her circumstances we often rack our brains thinking of how she got herself where she is, and how we never will. If we had to admit she was like us and we were like her, we might have to consider it’s maybe luck that’s got us sleeping in a bed instead of a doorway, and nothing more — not even God’s grace. Sis was as whole and beloved as any one of us. 

We’re often similarly discomfited by grief and loss, inevitable experiences we can spend lifetimes working through. There seems to be a prevailing idea that we shouldn’t linger long in sadness, or have any complicated reactions to anything that happens to us. Black Americans, for example, aren’t supposed to be angry, or protest, or feel anything, apparently, but gratitude. No matter what happens to us, we are supposed to bob upright in the end. If we don’t, it’s our innate flaw that prevents it, not the environment. But the 1 in 9 people taking antidepressants, along with the burgeoning self-help industry, suggests otherwise. Human resilience doesn’t just happen. People recover from trauma, grief and sadness when they’re heard and cared for around their trauma, grief and sadness.

But we don’t allow enough space for sadness, and therefore we also don’t allow space for healing. Races, nations, and individuals are only as resilient as their ability to mourn, lament, struggle, cry and work through who they are, what they’ve lost, and who they hope to be. We can see our nation’s resistance to grief and sadness by its failure to even try to understand the generational trauma of black Americans. We see it in the invisibility of Native Americans, who have also been given no sufficient space to grieve and honor what and who was lost when Europeans landed on this continent. We can see it in workplace policies, which often offer too little time to care for the sick and dying, or to mourn them when they die. We see it in the awkwardness we feel around the bereaved. No one knows what to say, though people die often enough that we ought to have figured it out. But mostly we see it in the phrases we can’t seem to help utter now and then: Just get over it. Are you still sad about that? The past is the past. 

The truth is, if you want to truly find a person or nation, they’re usually standing vigil over their deepest traumas. You won’t know much about who they are until you discover them there. People sit there alone, unseen, because the rest of us are terrified of their sadness and whatever tragedy wrought it.

It’s that terror that has us trained as a nation trained to walk past a woman stuffing newspapers into her boots to block the 20-degree winds, or call the police to have her removed. We could instead look into the mirror she holds up, and know her brokenness is ours. It’s the only way we’ll heal.

Cover Photo Credit: Art by Meridy Volz "Warrior" for sales here