There's a woman in my neighborhood I call "the Rottweiler woman." She lives near me, but she doesn't have a home. She lives on the street, napping during the day in a parking lot near a pharmacy and grocery store and storage facility, and sleeping in entryways of banks or the patio of a coffee shop. She has a unit in the storage facility, so she's able to change clothes and keep some goods. She must get some sort of disability or social security or other form of income. She's able to keep body and soul together. She neither begs nor scavenges. At least, I've never seen her doing either.
I call her "the Rottweiler woman," because she has the sweetest—he's also a bit scary if you don't know them—middle-aged Rottweiler. She also has a beautiful parrot who lives in his cage on her cart. She loves them and feeds them and grooms them. The Rottweiler sleeps beside her on the ground when she's napping or bedded down for the night. He watches over her and protects her, as any dog would do.
The Rottweiler woman isn't visibly more ill than most of the people I see every day, though I don't know all her problems or history. She reminds me of people I knew and worked with in the year between university and grad school, when I volunteered at a clinic for the homeless and a soup kitchen. So many of those people were just on the edge of keeping their lives together. They could make it if they got the right sort of support, but if too many demands were put on them, things would fall apart.
I don't know if that's her situation or not. I talk to her regularly. We talk about our dogs and she lets me see glimpses of her past, but it's not my place to pry. I hope I do get to know more about her, maybe even her name.
Yesterday, I stopped to talk to her as she was eating her lunch and I was on my way to mine. We chatted for a few minutes about her dog and the younger of mine and injuries they've suffered. She talked to me of the efficacy of her prayers in the past. And, she apologized for taking up my time, as if my time were more valuable than hers or she wasn't worth human interaction. (It's perhaps worth noting that she doesn't seem to have a network of other homeless people as many on the streets do.) As I left my lunch, she was still on the patio and I chatted a little more. Her dog came to smell my pants, picking up the scent of my dogs. She apologized again. As I was leaving, she chided the dog softly for not letting her talk to people.
I don't have some overarching point in this story, except to remind myself and whoever might read this of two things: a society in which people live on the streets is objectively a bad society (this is something Plato recognized in the Republic) and those people who live on the streets are people.
There is a tradition in at least some forms of Buddhism to see the Buddha-nature in everyone you meet. There is a tradition in at least some forms of Christianity to see Christ in everyone you meet. There are, I take it, similar tropes in other religions and traditions. I think they get something both very right and a little bit wrong. What they get right is to see the inherent value in every human being—that kernel of Kantian dignity that Schopenhauer couldn't find—and I think it is all too easy to look past certain people—the homeless, the suffering, the elderly, the disabled, the unloved, the discriminated against, the stranger, the poor, the prisoner—and by averting our eyes deny them their dignity and their place in community with us. I'm not sure the right way to do this is by seeing Christ or Buddha in them, though. That's too abstract, too mystical. We need to see the them in them, the particularity, but also the value in that particularity.
I think a lot about loneliness. I think it's perhaps the defining characteristic of human life. Maybe it's not the only one. Maybe it's only a characteristic of a certain kind of modern, deracinated life. But, we are the kinds of beings who need connection and, I think, we're the kinds of beings who realize that we are individuals. That is, we are self-conscious in a way other animals don't seem to be.
I'm lonely and I'm surrounded with people much of the time. These are people who are required to pay me respect and attention. I go home to a comfortable home—I live in comfort while others live on the streets—and I have a husband who loves me. And, there are the two dogs.
We have a duty not only to see the dignity in others, but to bridge our divides and help the lonely to be less lonely. To help all of us be, at the least, alone together. Or, as EM Forster had it, to "Only Connect."