Thinking of my friend M again today.
In many ways, he comes across as an enigma. Yet, as my own journey unfolds along the rocky road of survival, I begin to empathise in a deeper and more resonant way with M’s quirks. A proud man living on charity, his is a tension-filled dichotomous existence.
Once upon a time, when I was in a better position to dispense grace, we chatted about setting up a little shed space in my backyard for him. Perhaps he was only half joking, I shall never know, but I took it all most earnestly and threw myself into preparing the little haven for him. However, when the time came, and I invited M to view the clean up effort and discuss the kind of sleeping apparatus he preferred, he balked at the whole idea and disappeared into the nebulous haze of social obscurity and anonymity enshrouding the homeless. I was unable to contact him for months thereafter, in fact, it wasn’t until I had moved out of that home that he emerged again.
The regular bystander might have taken this act of M’s as a form of crude ingratitude, perhaps? I myself was partly nonplussed, but only partly so. I did not for a moment think he was unappreciative. Something deep within the bowels of sonorous empathy seemed to vibrate with a familiarity that I could not, at the time, specifically identify. The puzzled half of my mind ruminated at length about what could have been – a safe roof over his head, a clean toilet, a kitchen, occasional meals without addition charge, and no social obligation to chat either (because of my autistic leanings towards reduced verbal social interactivity). It all appeared very ideal.
However, a few years on, and having been through similar parallel experiences, where I was in need of and (unlike M) readily accepted various offers of help from well-meaning friends, I finally understand better M’s sudden exit from this pretty narrative of kindness and generosity.
He later explained some of his feelings to me, in the form of questions and oblique stutters: What if he got so used to the comfort, that he began to enjoy it but then some circumstance destroyed the blissful illusion? Would he have the emotional strength to face this abrupt loss?
Knowing what I know now, it would be to the soul a betrayal, however unintended or impersonal the situation may be.
Our original plan was for him to stay with me for the duration of my lease. Were my situation to change, for whatever plethora of reasons, I may not have the ability or desire or even the sentience to be aware of his abject loss, and hence perhaps not be in a position (intentional or unintentional) to continue offering him a safe haven under the new set of circumstances. I would not be able to fulfill my promise to a friend in need. And that is the most disloyal thing, albeit unwittingly.
M is in his late 70s. A frail-bodied, delicate minded, highly educated and refined soul. Potent combination in any context, but for a homeless man, it is a heartbreaking portion.
A roof over one’s head is one of the paramount necessities of life. Restricted access to money is not as cogently damaging to mind, soul and body as not having a stable abode, no matter how humble. Couch surfing and living off the goodness of friends offers temporary respite from the ravages of the streets, but it is fraught with anxiety triggers, extremely humiliating and robs a person of a certain part of autonomous dignity.
Had he accepted my offer, his reality, even if I would not demand it of him, would be peppered with feelings of obligation to comply with my ways of living. He would, because he is such a sensitive and observant person, and because he is always wanting to do things the ‘right’ and ‘moral’ way, feel pressed to keep his space clean according to the standards he perceives as mine, he would feel obliged to make small talk when passing me along the common walkways and backyard, he would feel as if he owes a debt he can never repay.
I am glad M did not follow through with our little plan. My grandiose gesture of charity was ill thought through, I had not realised the repercussions that the scheme would invite. And I most certainly now know that I would’ve failed him in some way or other, and would have caused a very treasured friend grief – however unintended or impersonal the reason, grief is painful to inflict upon anyone. On his part, he saw that perhaps he would too inflict some measure of discomfort upon me. All said and done, the bottom line to charity is that, unless one were a conscience-less ‘grabber’, it is much easier to be in the position to give largesse, than to receive. The sheer instability of being at the receiving end is a terribly excruciating mental and emotional oppression. Staring into the yawning echoing abyss of murky volatility robs the soul and assaults the mind, not to mention devastating the body.
M is a wise man. I wish I had the ability to provide him the kind of dignified independent help that he needs. But I do not.
Somehow, through the years I have had the honour of his friendship, he has always appeared at crucial moments when I was in need in some way or other. He helped me furnish every home that I moved into, with beautiful pieces picked up from piles discarded by the roadside. He brought me gifts similarly scavenged – he has impeccable taste too. M has attended every one of my exhibitions whenever he was able to. In my final exhibition, he even put $5 into the donation tin for the charity I was supporting. That $5 brought me to tears – it was the Widow’s Mite in more ways than just one.
Then recently, when I was facing an excruciating and shocking juxtaposition, he called me on the phone with words of encouragement. No, he could not solve my conundrum, but he seemed to understand my predicament with a resonant depth that could only come from someone who has been through far worse but yet has the grace to rise up and offer a word of empathy, even if that was all he could give.
I am humbled and honoured to have M as my friend. When I feel as if the cosmos is being unkind to me – and that happens quite often lately – I steer my mind towards my genteel friend, so gracious even in his struggle with mental illness, abject poverty and homelessness.
Thank you, M.