Often our understanding of the world is limited to what we know, and our worldview has been shaped by our experience—our culture, our education, our upbringing, our socioeconomic status—as well as by our personal relationships, standards, and aspirations. When we see a man sleeping in a doorway or a woman asking for help in a slurred voice, we can tend to compare their condition with our understanding of the world. We may assume there’s something fundamentally wrong with someone in such a state.
In truth, poverty puts people in a different world. The homeless person sleeping in the doorway may not have been able to rest the night before because he was guarding his few possessions. That woman may have an untreated medical condition that affects her speech.
Chelle Thompson writes, “Human beings seldom step outside of themselves to really grasp the needs and fears of others. We often project our own thoughts and beliefs upon strangers and make judgments based upon how we think they ‘should’ be living their lives.”
Someone has suggested that to understand others, we should walk a mile in their shoes. But can I walk in the shoes of a single mother who is homeless, sick, battling an addiction to prescription drugs, and has had her children taken from her and placed in foster care? How can I possibly ever feel what she feels? I can’t walk in her shoes, but I can ask if she’d like to talk, to tell me her story, to tell me how it feels in her shoes. We may both benefit.
My friend Quentin suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has had hallucinations that frightened him and made it difficult for him to live a normal life. When he moved to a nursing home, the staff there understood his conditions, and one caregiver explained to Quentin that some brain cells were sending him false signals. This placed the fault where it belonged—on his sickness rather than on Quentin himself.
At a conference on mental health that I once attended, one speaker said, “Don’t say, ‘He’s a schizophrenic,’ but ‘He has schizophrenia.’” By the same token, I have multiple health issues, but I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to be referred to as “the sick woman.”
This perspective changes not only our words but our attitude. Can we separate the person from whatever condition afflicts them, whether it’s mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, or physical disease? Can we see who is inside and treat that person with respect? If we can look beyond appearances or assumptions, we have a chance of uncovering something good, even beautiful, beneath a rough or unattractive exterior.
When my husband and I began volunteering at a local homeless shelter, my own preconceptions melted away as I learned the reasons why this single mother or that older man was there. Often, a confluence of unfortunate events that could happen to anybody had left them with no place to live and no one to take them in.
When I asked one man what he’d done previously, he said that he’d been an auditor, “back when I was a person.” It turned out he had actually been the overseer of a government department of auditors before depression cost him his job and, eventually, everything he had. After receiving treatment at the shelter, he found another job and now has his own home again.
The staff at the shelter politely address those staying there as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, Sir, Miss, or Ma’am. When we show respect, we bestow dignity. Dignity helps people see themselves more positively, and that yields hope. Hope gives the will to try and keep trying. In this way, our respect can help someone find a new life.
Quentin’s severe hallucinations were found to be the result of improper medication; when the dosage was decreased, he stopped seeing so many strange events unfolding around him. He still faces challenges, but he is understood and accepted at the nursing home—and he’s happy.
You can receive God’s love and salvation by simply praying this prayer:
Dear Jesus, I believe that You love me and died for me, so I can live in heaven for eternity. Please give me Your gift of salvation, fill me with Your Holy Spirit, help me to get to know You better, and help me to share Your love with others, even those I would not ordinarily approach. Amen.