Today we spent the afternoon helping out in the Food Bank for New York City, in Harlem. It was Lois's idea for a family outing, and I had chosen for us to serve in the Family Shopping section. Customers can come once a month, by self-referral, to take free groceries; the amount they are able to take depends on family size, and, using a points system, they are able to choose foods from various food groups - fruit and veg (mostly tinned but some fresh), protein and dairy (beans, soup, frozen meat, eggs, tinned fish/ meat), carbs (pasta, rice, bread), fruit juices, and baby foods. It is impressively run with a simple system of preparing, packing and stacking, an efficient 'backroom' of sorters, cleaners and shifters, and a few good leaders to keep us all occupied and happy.
It was all really shabby, and really cold. But people were given life-supporting essentials, offered with respect, preserving dignity. The customers were friendly and thankful in a simple and sweet way.
I don't know how to talk here about what I experienced. When I try to describe the people or anything else about it it feels awkward, distant, dry. What I need is to reflect on how I experienced myself in the experience (and this is convoluted, I know): what I saw certainly provoked responses in me, but every observation I want to make just seems to reveal the narrowness of my life experience and the rigidity of my worldview: that is, my prejudices.
An example: I found that I had been expecting the customers to look poor (whatever that is) but they looked, um ... normal.
And why should they not look like you or me? Why should 'poor' people look different? Their clothes might have been, shall we say, more comfortably worn-in than those you would find adorning the shoppers on 5th Avenue, but that was so not what most struck me as important when I was there. What was I expecting to see: lives that revealed their desperation, or that hid shame? Perhaps it would be easier to deal with the challenge to my own life and lifestyle choices if their poverty were ‘worn’ by them on the outside. That way the bigger societal and political questions could be kept in the theoretical, at arm’s length, because they don’t after all touch much on my life, cosy and privileged as it is. And that way the smaller personal and emotional questions could continue to be ignored, because we are not talking about me are we, it’s about these poor people who need my grandiose help in my leisure time … and can we change the subject now?
So … the issue lurking and jeering on the edge of my consciousness is the dangerous one, and it has to do with neediness. How easy it is to hide my need for help. How easy to mask my difficulties – both to myself and to other people - with all sorts of outer things that are available to me mostly because I have resources.
Having stuff when and where I want it means my time is filled with both the necessities and the distractions of modern life.
Having a certain cultural background and current choices – education, profession, marriage, family, home, neighbourhood – means my awareness is constantly and only filled with people and activities that just don’t touch on anyone else’s different reality.
Having a clever or witty or sarcastic or cutting tongue creates a smokescreen exactly when admitting my weakness would enable someone else to come close and to see me … oh, yes, now we are getting to the nub, aren’t we?
The longing to be seen.
And, the fear of being seen.
Being seen in all my anxieties and weakness and weirdness and ugliness and nakedness. That you might agree with my judgment of myself: that I am not worth your regard.
Double ouch: because here is a glimpse of what is going on under my carefully constructed mask that keeps me out of your life when you need me, and keeps you out of my life when I need you. Not about money, usually, but just about what it means to be human, about the reality of how we belong to each other, and therefore actually need each other.
So, yes, in the Food Bank when I looked into each face I was seeing hunger: real hunger for real food. But in the other sense it could as well have been a mirror that I was looking into. Because as well as needing enough to eat to sustain life, we are all alike in our hunger for all the good things that belong to human life: emotional, mental, spiritual, and body. For our hearts, our minds, our souls, and for our strength.
We met wonderful people in those few hours; I'm glad we sidestepped our tourist role for an afternoon to hand out a few carrots and tins of fruit. It was inspiring and heart-warming to be with ... well, with people. People are amazing.