This academic year, we at the School of Theology and Ministry are taking time each month to reflect on a theme as a learning community. Every month, a faculty or staff member offers up a personal reflection, exploring how that month’s theme applies to their life and work. (See here for an overview of these themes, which will also be highlighted in each month’s school e-newsletter.)→
The theme for our school community this February 2016 is “Nourish.” We choose to unite. We choose to nourish body, mind and spirit.
When I was invited to offer a reflection on this theme, I felt compelled to share my recent experience with the One Night Count in King County, and reflect on the personal and systemic implications of human brokenness, connection and compassion.
By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, School of Theology and Ministry (Originally published 2/2/16 on the School of Theology and Ministry website)
Last Friday morning, around 4:00am, my flashlight roved over the park grounds and rested briefly on a human figure bundled up on the ground beneath a picnic shelter. I stared for a moment before turning out my light, and the image burned behind my eyes. A sharp pit gnawed at my stomach as we made a note and moved on.
It was the 2016 One Night Count of homeless people in King County, and our team had already seen and counted several people sleeping in their cars in grocery store parking lots and next to auto-repair shops (an all-too-common sight in neighborhoods like Ballard, SODO, and along sections of Aurora, where folks try to find a place to park where they won’t be harassed, disturbed, or ticketed).
But it was the individual in the park who jarred and haunted me. There was something about that lonely figure in the still, silent night that magnified anew the raw human tragedy of homelessness. There – a fellow human being, totally alone, isolated and vulnerable on the cold hard ground of a deserted park in the wee hours of the morning.
It was overwhelming.
Where was his mother? Is she out there somewhere worrying about her son? Does this person in the sleeping bag have friends to share her dreams and fears with, laugh with, and call on when she needs help? What gets him or her up in the morning and through each day? And what must it be like to try to find rest and safety alone in the open air on a cold January night?
When the numbers were announced a few hours later, I found out that he or she was one of 4,505 people sleeping out of doors in our county (a 19% increase from last year’s count).
Now, a few days later, I continue to reflect on what it says about our society, our communities and our neighborhoods that we allow our neighbors – siblings, parents, children, grandparents – to sleep in their cars, on the street, under bridges, in shelters, and in places where they can’t find the peace, safety and stability of “home.”
Homelessness is not just about a lack of housing and resources, or about bad choices or tough luck. I believe it’s a symptom of many layers of brokenness – the brokenness of a society that doesn’t ensure and provide for the wellbeing of all of its people, the brokenness among different groups and communities who don’t communicate with or adequately support one another, the brokenness of modern life that simultaneously connects us yet stymies and weakens social bonds, and the brokenness in each of us that prevents us from living fully into our humanness and compassion for each other.
Nourishing and Flourishing
When I was invited to reflect on the word “nourish,” this pervasive brokenness that allows for social ills like homelessness came immediately to mind. The way I see it, homelessness is a symptom of various forms of malnourishment – and we humans need nourishing well beyond the biological.
I like to think of “nourishing” and the concept of “flourishing” together. These words conjure up a vision of the “good life,” speaking to the things that sustain human life and make it meaningful and whole.
We are, after all, social, relational, material and spiritual beings who can only truly flourish if we nourish mind, body, and spirit–in ourselves and in others.
I was reminded recently of the analogy of the oxygen mask in the airplane to explain the concept of self-care. The idea is that you need to make sure you’ve taken care of yourself before you can successfully take care of others.
For my part, I’ve been working a lot more on self-care this year and I’ve noticed it slowly transforming my ability and capacity to be present to others and to seek and do more of what I find meaningful in this world. I’m about halfway through a nine-month long Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life retreat – nine months of making time and space for spiritual nourishment each day and actively seeking and finding God in all things. By taking this time for myself and for my relationship with God, I’ve opened up new spaces in myself for others.
One of the places I find God most often is in the faces, words and actions of the people in my life – in my fiancé, friends, family, the people I work with and the people I meet on the street. Ironically, I’m holed away in my office while writing this, but it’s true that my days are most enriched and light-filled when I’m intentional about making more time to nurture the relationships in my life, from a conversation with a coworker about their child to a couple of extra minutes talking about weather and politics with a Real Change vendor.
I think if we all took a little more time to nourish ourselves and our relationships with others, we just might be able to acknowledge, move beyond and maybe even heal some of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world.
I saw a thought-provoking video recently on YouTube called “Everything We Think We Know About Addiction is Wrong.” (You can also watch the original TED Talk on the topic, here.) The video reviews many of the things I’ve already mentioned–that we are innately social beings who crave relationships and interaction with one another and are most fulfilled when we are nourishing healthy connections with others. The narrator explains that when we are deprived of these connections because we are “traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life” we turn to other things to fill the void – it might be drugs or alcohol, or it might be our smartphone, video games, or gambling. Hence, the video’s moral: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
We are all broken in our own ways. In spite of and because of this, we all need connection, and are deserving of love, mercy, and justice.
I just finished reading, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, and his are the words that sparked my ruminations on brokenness. I want to leave you with his words now:
I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (Stevenson, p. 289)
If we’re going to bring about a more just and humane world and end homelessness, we need to embrace and engage the brokenness at its root. Then, together, and from a place of compassion and love, we can go on to nourish and build the healing relationships and systems that will transform the world.
If you’re interested in learning and doing more, watch this great video by All Home and be part of the community (our community) that’s working to end homelessness!