Have you ever felt homeless? I don’t mean trying to imagine yourself living on the street, without a roof over your head, but the inarticulate feeling inside you that would resonate with the word “homeless”?
For many years – night in and night out – this has been a recurrent motif of my dreams. However their main plot had varied, that motif remained constant: in every dream I wouldn’t have a home of my own. I would stay at an hotel, perch in a corner of somebody’s sitting room among their busy life, sleep in half-deserted dormitories… It was the resonance with this feeling that drew me to take part in Crisis at Christmas when a friend told me about this large-scale volunteering initiative in the UK.
Crisis at Christmas
During the Christmas week the organization called Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk) hires empty schools and colleges and turns them into the residential and day-centres for people who are homeless. Some of them sleep rough, others live at squats or manage by the so-called “sofa-surfing” at their friends’ or acquaintances. At Crisis’ centres the guests receive three home-cooked meals a day and have an access to a wide variety of free services: medical checks, dentist treatments, haircut, clothes alterations, legal advice, massage, reflexology, Reiki, meditation, arts and crafts, drama classes, creative writing – you name it. And just having a chat with some friendly people also means a lot! During last Christmas (2014) 10 centres in London welcomed over 3,600 guests. More than 10,000 volunteers took part in the event, and I had a privilege to be one of them. It was my second time at Crisis at Christmas and, as the year before, it was a very profound and intense experience, which shook me and stirred many feelings and thoughts. I’d like to try and share some of them here.
What is homelessness?
What does it mean to be homeless? Is it a social phenomenon, psychological conundrum or existential condition? Or perhaps – all of those. On my way back to Cambridge I had a chat over a cup of coffee with a friend who teaches philosophy. He evoked Heidegger, the German existential philosopher who spoke of our “thrownness”: we are being “thrown” into this world, without asking for it, without choosing the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, isolated in our uniqueness, struggling to make some sense of all this.
There are levels – and layers – of homelessness. Heidegger’s is the most basic – existential level – a human condition that we all share. Some of us may experience it sharper than others, but we all experience it at some point and have to come to terms with it. Interwoven with it and, partly, evolving from it is the next level: psychological homelessness. By this I mean our needs and feelings of belonging, of being appreciated and needed, of being accepted for who we are.
From the chats that I had with the guests at Crisis I formed an impression that it is when things go badly wrong at this level that leads to the actualized homelessness when a person has no safe place of their own, neither physical nor social. They are literally thrown out: of their homes and of other people’s lives. These are people whose families rejected them, who lost their jobs, their homes, their faith in themselves and in others – and found themselves in emotional and social isolation.
Where does it begin?
As I am writing this, letting my thoughts spin, I am beginning to see the basic experiences of family and social bonding as a buffer that stops the fathomless waters of existential thrownness from crushing through the walls of human psyche and swamping it. I spoke to a young man who grew up in an orphanage; a couple of years ago he managed to track down his mother. She was now living with a young daughter, married to a wealthy man and didn’t want to know of him… I encountered a man in his sixties, who attempted suicide twice, and he has grown up children who hold good jobs and earn decent money… I can’t stop wondering what will become of these people – will they make it through this winter? And the following one?..
My initiation into Crisis has endowed me with a “survivor’s guilt” that I have to learn to accept and embrace. Yet this guilt comes together with the gift. It is a gift of hope. The hope that healing is possible. Of course, it is my own healing too that I’ve been seeking when volunteering at Crisis at Christmas. And I believe I have found some answers – at least for myself…
One of the most remarkable things about Crisis at Christmas is that it is a place where people (even volunteers between themselves) don’t ask each other about what they do in the “outer” life. The usual questions that dominate most social gatherings, implicitly or explicitly, are rendered irrelevant in this context. Suddenly it doesn’t matter what your job is, how much you earn, what car you drive, what are your degrees, position, status, and so on. People get to know you from an immediate experience of you – through what you give and how you give, through how you interact with others. They get to know you by your smile, by the tone of your voice, by how you listen and how you share. It is the essential qualities that matter and on this level one is able to experience the rare moments of true equality: because even the most deprived person, outside of the very margins of society, still carries the light of his or her personality within them.
We hold on so tightly to external attributes which we believe add to our value. When we lose these attributes (even just some of them) we suffer and feel worthless. But it is when we are stripped naked of all our decorations that our humanness comes forth, shining in its vulnerable beauty. I have already discovered this simple truth through my personal journey as well as my work as a therapist, but it was my experience at Crisis that really helped it sink in.
Giving and receiving
It is very important though that in such critical moments of your life someone will be with you who can appreciate this beauty and reflect it back to you, so you can begin to appreciate it for yourself. And here I come to another crucial notion: the openness of heart. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a person who had been deprived of love and caring is that they deem themselves beyond hope and turn away from help that is being offered. Kierkegaard (to mention yet another existential philosopher) called it “shutupness or “in-closure” (Indeslutte) and deemed it the worst kind of despair.
In order to heal one has to be able to receive. And in order to receive one has to have courage to give their trust to somebody who offers them compassion and a helping hand. So the giving and the receiving are really the one thing – like yin and yang – flowing one into the other and engendering one another. I have fully experienced it at Crisis.
This year as well as the last year I have being working alongside massage and yoga practitioners, giving Reiki. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Reiki comes from an ancient tradition of healing by laying on hands. It is a very simple pure kind of touch (although some practitioners do it without physical contact) that promotes a deep sense of relaxation and helps rebalance emotions and restore physical health. It was truly amazing and infinitely moving to witness how people who sleep on the street could so totally entrust themselves to your hands, how they allowed themselves to be held and attended to. What beautiful, slightly shy smiles I’ve been greeted with when they opened their eyes re-emerging from a few moments of peace and calmness! The gift of warm-hearted child-like gratefulness generously offered. It was a healing gift for me too for at these moments I transcended my own existential homelessness and experienced a profound sense of connectedness – from heart to heart. I wasn’t alone any more, the world had meaning and my life had meaning.
After so many dark nights of the soul, after all my wanderings through the endless tunnels I feel that I came to be more rooted in my heart, feeling safe and comfortable there and happy to open it to others and to life. It is a wonderful and joyful experience of Homecoming.
And, in conclusion, I want to share with you a song performed by The Choir with No Name – a choir of homeless people. One of the guests at Crisis told me about them and said that singing at the choir is what kept him going. Please listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJjTe5DmGso