I went to the fabric store downtown on Monday. I’m always slightly surprised that a fabric store continues to exist right downtown on Douglas Street. As I walked in, the man who I think is an owner said, “Customer,” to a woman who works there. They both stopped talking to answer my question – where can I find the ribbons? – and they went back to speaking to each other.
I listened as I poked through the ribbon bins. I always listen, even if I don’t really realize that I am listening. Sometimes I say of Emily, “She’s made of ears,” when she picks up interesting bits of adult conversation from the other end of the house when you think she’s totally busy with something else. Well, I’m made of ears too, and I find humans fascinating.
What the woman said was: “So even though he had his parents in Oak Bay and a good home to stay in, he chose to live on the streets.” I let this snippet of conversation flow past me while I chose ribbon, and elastic, and then finally, and somewhat impulsively, the last two and a half meters of a fabric that I had been eyeing back in December.
But later that day I started to realize that I had been turning this statement over in my mind, kind of like you would keep feeling a stone that you put in your pocket, getting to know the facets and lumpy bits.
Turns out I have some opinions about this bit of conversation.
One is that it is so deeply unlikely that this (I presume) young man chose to live on the streets, if what you mean by chose is that he pointed his finger at this one particular way of living out of all the other workable possibilities that were open to him – like he had a catalogue of unlimited lifestyle options in front of him and consciously decided, yes, these circumstances suit me.
The reality is that because of how the people in his life treated him thus far, combined with his own particular ways of coping with his life circumstances and experiences up to this point, and his fundamental nature, some things that are options for other people simply won’t be options for this person. They just won’t.
Remember that I know next to nothing about this person. But I can easily, oh so unfortunately easily, imagine that he might come from a household where feelings are not allowed. Maybe the family has a pattern of changing the subject when difficult feelings come up. Maybe they squash them down, “Don’t cry.” “Get over it.” “It’s not a big deal.” Maybe they get turned around on the person feeling the feelings and there is anger – “You’re sad? It’s your own fault for doing…” Maybe there was active abuse – physical punishment, isolation, belittling.
Any of these could be enough of a stumbling block that this young person turned to ways of coping that seem to get him what he needs. Drugs or alcohol to cover over the emotional hole. A sense of solidarity that could come with being on the street (or elsewhere) with people in similar circumstances who seem to “get” his particular pain.
But choice? Nope. This is sure as shit not a choice in the way that the speaker in the fabric store meant it.
The other thing is that it’s really hard to tell what is going on inside a person, inside a relationship, inside a family, from the outside. We all have a drive to make it look ok to the outside observer and are likely to adhere to a certain degree of “normal” (whatever that is for you). Some things make the façade stronger: an intense mandate to make it look good no matter what, valuing appearances over feelings, certain moral codes, an unwillingness or inability to show vulnerability, etc.
And some other things, in particular having an abundance of money, can make it really easy to make that façade look good. It’s a shit ton easier to look like you’ve got it all together and are doing this life thing well if you’re not scrambling for next month’s rent money, or wondering when your internet is going to get cut off, or being unable to afford to go to the dentist and making do with the only provincially covered dental option which is to get all the teeth pulled…
So, without trying to malign Oak Bay in the slightest, I’m saying there could be a hell of a lot going on in the reality of that family that does NOT match the happy, supportive family portrait. And these things make it such that, for this man, living on the street becomes the thing that happens. Not, I would guess, because he chose it, but just because when all the shit fell into place, there it was, somehow, and some part of it pulled him.
I do believe that we can change our circumstances from the inside out by bringing to our lives our kind awareness and a willingness to fall apart. (It’s fucking hard work at times, too.)
But I also know from experience that for something to be an option there has to be an underlying belief system that says, “This is possible for me.” So, if you have a loud belief system says, for example, “I’m not worthy of deep love and care from those around me,” your choices are extremely limited. (These don’t have to be negative belief systems. I had one upon reaching adulthood that said, “You go to university after high school.” It was strong. I didn’t consider any other possibilities, or even whether or not I wanted to go to university. I just went.)
What does this all mean? I guess it means: let’s get really gentle with each other. That person there who you would judge to be failing at their life, and that other one over there who is being a repellent asshole, and even that one there who seems like such a together, upstanding person, well, let’s take a small pause and see if we can see the place where they are human and we are human. Look. We’re all human together and there are places where we all flail and fall apart. But thinking that the difficult circumstances of someone’s life were freely chosen? Let’s not do that.