It is often said that our children make the best teachers and this week I have learnt some valuable lessons.
Our eldest daughter started rehearsing this week for a pantomime she is appearing in over the festive period. Rehearsals are taking place in the studio above the theatre and so we have started daily trips into Leeds.
Our girls are not used to the city having really only been to Leeds to appear in their annual dance show. For them the city is an alien place full of new sights and smells, with intrigue around every corner. Yet the thing that always attracts their attention and leaves them talking for weeks afterwards is the homeless. They cannot understand why there are people without homes and without someone to care for them and they also cannot understand why people with means walk by.
This week was no different, so as H and I walked past a homeless man begging at the traffic lights and I clutched her hand a little tighter pulling her on, H stopped, stood still and very firmly pulled me back. “Mummy the gentleman is talking to you”. My heart was fearful. I didn’t see a man who was lost or lonely or in need, I saw a man who might be a threat to my child since I had no idea of his demons, assuming the worst and that he was haunted by addiction or by mental health problems.
However, I saw the goodness in H’s heart and knew I could not deny that purity and that charity, instinctive in her as child. I also don’t want to teach my children to be fearful. So taking H’s lead, I relaxed and let her guide me back the few steps towards him. Now I genuinely did not have any cash with me, but H had the bag of popcorn she was clutching as a treat and she handed it straight over, no hesitation.
Late that night as the lights of the city blurred in the raindrops on our car window, H quietly and persistently asked me questions about the homeless. Where do they sleep? Why don’t they sell things to make money? Why are the homeless? Where do they get food from? Why do all the many, many people in the city walk past them and ignore them?
I explained that people are scared and that sometimes, something so wrong and sad is hard for people to look at and deal with. I also told H how proud I was of her that evening and that she had taught me something. That mummy was wrong to be afraid and wrong to turn the other cheek, that I had learnt from H that evening.
The next day as we headed into the city, “Mummy how much do you have to pay to work for a company”. I was confused, but essentially, H had assumed that in order to get a job you had to pay for it. “No darling” and we then had a chat about interviews and skills needed. After a pause, “but Mummy if that’s it, why don’t homeless people have job interviews and get jobs…..”
Another lesson, as I thought about the assumptions immediately made with no named address, without the right clothes, without the right look. About the doors closing in faces which don’t fit and the deaf ears falling on stories with unhappy endings and unexpected twists and tribulations.
Yet the thing that left me most heartbroken was this: although 5 minutes earlier H had asked to get two packets of popcorn so that she could keep one for herself, this time as we approached the theatre, she pulled me to cross the road in the opposite direction to avoid someone sat huddled on the floor….
What had I done? I knew I had gone too far….in the dark of the night and in the comfort of our leather seats as we sped back towards our warm, soft home miles out of the city, nestled in the affluent safety of our village, in Yorkshire’s celebrated Golden Triangle, I had planted seeds of fear in a heart which had been so generous and so trusting just hours earlier.
When H had wanted to know why I was scared and why I thought a homeless man was a threat to my babies, I had talked to her about addiction and what it can do to you.
But as we marched through Leeds, both heads down yesterday and as I write this blog today, I am aware that I have focussed on the wrong things. I am aware that I have generalised, stereotyped and judged, all with great neglect and with a superiority I don’t deserve. I have chosen to ignore the human story and chosen instead to be led by fear.
I know as I write this, that the issues here are complicated and have many layers and many textures. I know that this article might offend in its simplicity. I know it’s not quite as easy as following the example shown by my 7 year old daughter, but how might it look if our charitable efforts were more than a donation, more than a pledge made on line or over the phone. How about if we also stopped to talk to someone, if we touched someone and recognised them? If we stopped judging and just acknowledged our own privilege and that a real person with a heart and with a story is standing before us?
It’s not just the homeless…if I see images of crowds and crowds of refugees, or images of starving children, I am ashamed to say, I am the person who will turn off the TV. I cannot bear to look on the pain and the suffering; I hide away from the immensity of the problem and from the heartache. I allow myself to be de-sensitised, justifying it on the basis there is just so much pain on the news, I have seen too many deaths, too many wars, too much famine. Yet I have a friend whose wife, a doctor, every year gives up time with her family and young children to travel to work with those in need – using her holiday and her own resources to do so. What if we were all just a little bit more like that?
My mission for the next couple of weeks is to stop the fear I have sown in my daughters head….yet even as I type that I know my actions will be measured, I can feel my fear calling. I need to take a step up myself and choose love not fear.
Ps thank you to Pinterest for the image