The things we own, the things we choose, do not define us or create us, they reflect us. Our choices reflect who we are, and not the other way around. We think we are defined by what we do, how we look, and sometimes, where we live, but so long as choice exists, these are reflections, not definitions, of our character.

When things become desperate and Want is replaced by Need, people donate ‘stuff’ just to ‘help a fella out.’ A friend of mine in Louisiana recently pointed out that most often, what is donated is not what is needed by the needy, but what is no longer wanted by the donor. I agree. It is unreasonable to expect someone to donate an entire dinner service of Royal Doulton, but what is received will likely be cracked and chipped—nothing you would want on your table. Still, it’s considerably better than paper plates and I like to think the donor anticipates a reversal of your bad luck. (Someone once donated to me several empty cardboard boxes. I still don’t know why.)

Not having a choice, though, is most troublesome. Life takes unexpected and unwelcomed turnings, especially when our ability to choose is impaired or suspended, lumbering us with restrictions and limitations that are unpleasant at the very least, and may even be psychologically destructive. When you are not free to choose, your ability to express yourself is curtailed. Self-expression is a vital aspect of survival.

People in the West are accustomed to being defined by their names, appearance, occupations, and even where they live. We structure our days around these identifications. No one can take our name from us unless we agree to surrender it. Our appearance, barring catastrophe, will change so slowly over time that we’ll always be known. These are permanent, and we expect other aspects of our lives to be permanent too. However, we can lose our occupations and/or become displaced from home, for many reasons. People do not seem especially sympathetic to either of these plights, and especially, the last. At the end of a rough day, we simply assume we can go home.

Anyone who has endured unemployment or retirement, or who has lost a home due to fire or flood, knows what a tremendous adjustment that requires. Where we are and what we do are vital components to the framework around which we plan our days. With no framework, there is nothing constructive forthcoming.

Where we live is as much part of our self-image as are our appearance, our jobs and our names. It reflects our affluence (or lack of it), it may reflect our ethnic associations, and it reflects our tastes within our financial limitations. When circumstances and uncharitableness take Home from us, we lose something of our self. It is short-sighted to maintain that survival is limited to breathing, eating, and having some protection from the elements. Survival includes our identity and self-awareness. Without them, we become breathing ghosts.

Homelessness is a problem with multiple facets. There is the issue of men and women living in doss houses, shelters, on the streets or under bridges (the latter suggestions which, for some reason, people find amusing). That is both inconvenient and embarrassing for those who do not have to live that way—all those streets cluttered with all those people. There is a lot of mental illness and substance abuse associated with this population, and I maintain that a contributing factor to the mental illness aspect is the loss of self-identity. The loss of self-identity feeds the illness. As a society we have become complaisant about the homeless. ‘We will donate money at Christmas,’ or ‘we will buy that poor fellow a meal the next time we see him, thank God we aren’t like him!’ When we encounter them on the street, we look the other way; when they are sleeping on the sidewalk, we step over them without another thought. They are mere ghosts of people, and most of us do not believe in ghosts. There are agencies to ‘deal’ with these people (which is reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge’s ‘are there no poor houses and debtors’ prisons?’) so we need not be concerned. What do we do to help such people survive—not just keep breathing and eating, and maybe with a roof over the head, but survive in the sense of continuing to be who they are? Donating money to charity will not reinforce the most elementary requirement for mental health—to be who we know ourselves to be, and not what circumstance has made us.

In the last year, I lived in four places. Each location (or move to a location) necessitated my surrendering a lot of what reflected me, sometimes irretrievably. The first required my giving up most of my possessions (things which reflected me as a person). Everything else was packed and shipped. The location to which I moved allowed to me to keep most of my property (unpacked), but I had to surrender many of my freedoms. The next move separated me from my property, inaccessibly stored in a remote location. The last move has been the most difficult in that I am removed from familiar surroundings and people, and my self-reflections are still in storage. My hotel room is cold and sparse. The next move may well require me to take my place in the street. I am on the way to becoming a ghost because with every step, my choices and expression are further limited.

I confess I am afraid, which does not help me manage. I have seen life spiral downward, and I have been astonished by the indifference and insincerity of many, (offset by the wonderful compassion of a very few). My world is a room and a suitcase. It is cold outside because it is winter, and it is freezing inside because it is empty. I wonder who I will turn out to be in the end. I seldom thought about this in the ‘before times’; it didn’t occur to me I might someday become one of them.

We would do well to believe in, and care for, ghosts; we may someday become one of them.

Paul TN Chapman
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