On Fear and the Different

As a little girl, I often thought about traveling. I thought about going to India or China or the Middle East. I liked to think about these places because they are so unfamiliar and to be perfectly honest these places scared me a little bit. However, they scared me in a good way - like the type of nervousness you feel before setting out on a great adventure.

That said, two things have always held me back from actually traveling: different food and different smells (or more correctly bad smells). Now, as an adult, I love to try different foods. Different foods no longer scare me - they excite me. I want to taste almost everything the world has to offer.

But smells, smells still scare me. I remember even as a little girl admiring Mother Theresa or Audrey Hepburn’s work with UNICEF - but as I looked at the pictures of them serving the poor - I wondered how they handled the smell.

What I am saying here is embarrassing to admit - it is embarrassing to admit that I want to stay away from helping people because I don’t like the way they smell. However, we can’t move forward until we are honest about the way we feel - and this is true about me.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and a woman who served the extremely poor and homeless in New York for most of her life admitted the same thing. She said that the smell of the people suffering from homelessness was the one thing she never got used to - even after a lifetime of service. When I read that in her autobiography - I thought it was a courageous thing to admit. Because to me, not liking the way someone smells, seems the same as admitting racist feelings or that you stay away because you feel uncomfortable about someone’s disability. They may be your feelings - but that doesn’t mean that it is right, kind, loving, caring, or moral. Of course, I recognize that staying away from a person because they may not have great hygiene is wrong. Loving people means putting aside “discomforts” and being with others. However, I think it is important to recognize what is holding us back from loving others and confess it. Don’t keep things in the dark - there is no healing there.

However, overcoming my prejudice against the way the homeless smell to me was one difficulty. I think that what is even more difficult is that the more I work with the homeless - the more that I found that some of them - even when offered a shower - don’t accept it (certainly not all!! I know several people who have been or are currently homeless and have impeccable hygiene). This is something that frustrated me - something that I didn’t understand. I always assumed that the reason someone was dirty is that they didn’t have access to water - but to find that some choose not to shower even if they are offered one was absolutely mind-boggling to me. That is of course until Sarah.

I met Sarah quite literally on the side of the street here in Spokane. It was a 95-degree day in late July. She had just moved here from the south, had recently lost her mother, and was homeless. She smelled like she probably hadn’t had a shower in at least a month. The family had recently moved out of our basement, and we were still processing and healing from that experience, so I didn’t feel comfortable bringing her home. However, I knew of a place where she could get shelter, a meal, and a shower. This particular shelter also has programs to help people facing homelessness get permanent housing, life skills, and a job - if they are willing to do some of the hard work.

Sarah was incredibly unsure about the shelter - so I told her that I would call and check on bed availability and then drive her there if there were available beds. I called - there were beds available. I then asked her if I could drive her there. She declined. I offered bus money to get her there. She declined again.

So then I stopped pressing and just asked her why she didn’t want to go. Her answer changed everything for me. She said she was afraid. She said that she had been at a shelter before in another state and was mistreated - she said the people who work at shelters are nice - but that the other people staying there sometimes aren’t safe. She then concluded her reasoning by saying in a thick southern accent, “I’m also ‘fraid of somthin’ different.”

Ah yes. Different. I am afraid of that too. At times I am afraid of interacting with people because they may act different, smell different, or speak differently. I am scared of both my discomfort as well as not being accepted by the group.

I am also afraid of a “different” that may be hard or require me to change - even if I know that the change is good for me. Even if I know that something will make me healthier or stronger - I stay away because I hate discomfort. Recently my doctor told me to start working out. I knew that I needed to exercise. Yet I felt paralyzed to change. Working out takes discipline, time, and is not fun to me. I know that the reward is physical health, strength, and improved mental health. Yet, I sat at home day after day for months, ignoring my alarm and calls from my body to exercise. (I finally did begin to work out, and by-the-by, it turns out that it wasn’t so scary after all.)

No, working out and struggling with homelessness is not even kind of in the same ballpark. One is incredibly more difficult than the other. However, the heart of it is the same. The heart of it is that we both are denying something good for us out of fear. 

It is that realization - that we all often refuse to do something that is good for us out of fear - that I can become empathetic instead of angry. It is here that I can have mercy instead of pity. There is a log in my eye. So I sat and talked some more with Sarah. We talked about how hard change is. We talked a little more about her life and her fears and the ways that she has been mistreated. I told her that I have friends that have stayed at this shelter and while some people can be rough - that my friends never felt mistreated. In the end, I wasn’t able to convince her to go to the shelter. I gave her my number and also the number to the shelter and begged her to call if she ever had a moment where she was feeling ready. 

That encounter was just about six months ago. I never did hear from her. I hate that sometimes offering to be there is all I can do. I think about her often - praying that she made it to the shelter. That somehow she is on her way to brighter days - or that she at least has the hope of brighter days. I also remember that we are all afraid of the different - and I remind myself not to allow the fear of "different" keep me from positive change or loving other others well.

To read more on my thoughts on homelessness and how my husband and I (along with our two boys) helped a family facing homelessness find permanent housing, click here.