"I had to turn away. Otherwise, I was going to start crying."
These were the words of a recent WPQW participant who was in DC with her college for an alternative break week. We were taking time for reflection about what insights, experiences, or wisdom they had noticed from their time with us, so far. The activities included participating in Our Daily Bread (a fellowship community breakfast with people from all walks of life, including many who sleep on the streets and in shelters), garden winterization and soil prep for spring planting, and street outreach with people that are homeless.
Among the insights of other folks was the realization, garnered from their 1:1 time with people, that listening to people, simply engaging in conversation, being with people where they are, matters. In this was also the awareness of the fact that mental illness has high co-morbidity with the homeless population, but to really connect we have to have a relationship. Others had reflections that it all can seem overwhelming as we seek answers (I maintain that it is not answers that keep us moving, but the next good question), and that the real work for social justice has to continue in their daily lives, not just as an alternative vacation.
But it was the role of tears where things got real. One student spoke - somewhat apologetically - through her tears about how a homeless woman told her that she and her fellow-students reminded the woman of her own daughters. It brings it home - there are families, loved ones, and whole life stories that remain invisible. Then, there was the statement by the student about needing to turn away from all the stimulus. She said it was overwhelming. I suspect, and we talked about it, that what was overwhelming was not what was going on around her, but what was welling up inside of her, perhaps a mixture of anger, sadness, guilt, disgust, even love, and her all-too-common belief that we should not be emotional. And it is the fear of tears, the sadness, perhaps intellectualized as a sense of weakness, that we seem the most uncomfortable with, and it often leads us to want to flee.
And yet, we need to be with these emotions, fully present not just with our heads but with our hearts, embracing them, not fighting them, if we are truly to engage in the good work of trying to make the world a better place. We can talk about statistics of poverty, mental illness, health indicators, etc., but as Emma Goldman said, "The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but after all, the most vital right is to love and be loved." To be loving means being able to laugh and cry. When we turn away from our tears when they naturally occur, we turn away from our emotions, and we turn away from being present with others. But when we let it flow, we strengthen ourselves, become more present and more whole to carry on the good work.