I’m popping up to northwest Washington to visit Unity Village, a temporary community of tiny homes for homeless people (copied from website). I’m taken immediately by its cheerfulness and order: pots of flowers and chairs placed on neatly swept porches, a large container on the back of a flatbed truck housing a set of showers, walled tents for the kitchen and community area.
As I stand outside the chain link fence gaping like a four-year old, I’m greeted by David, a resident, who shows me inside the enclosure and gets me signed in. A volunteer, friendly, calm, dressed casually for the rainy weather, stands nearby.
I volunteered briefly at an Anchorage homeless shelter several years ago. It was nothing like this. Stuffy, like a jail, and stinking from cigarette smoke that wafted in from outside, the huge concrete room was constant with noise and human movement. I’m no stranger to fatigue, but I haven’t felt that kind of physical and emotional exhaustion before or since. David assured me that the noise and bustle I experienced is pretty much the norm for homeless shelters. He described how people drift in over the course of mid-afternoon and evening, get a small Styrofoam bowl of food, usually frozen mixed vegetables in a sticky white sauce. Plastic covered foam pallets are laid on the floor where people try to rest. It’s the stuff of nightmares in which everything is strange, hard-edged, and out of control. You try to keep yourself organized and sane. But it’s very, very hard.
David has been a resident of Unity Village since early this year and is busy with construction and maintenance projects around the village. He shows me his own little house: a pleasant room about the size of a small walk-in closet with a sofa slightly wider than a loveseat. Too short for a bed. I look at him, puzzled about how he sleeps there. I’m short, he says smiling, and don’t need a lot of room. His choice of the sofa immediately strikes me as congruent with his hospitality and kindness.
Prior to the construction of Unity Village, David stayed at a shelter, living with the noise, the chaos, the impossibility of getting a clear thought of his own. It’s quiet here, he said. People have the space to think, to get themselves back together. His words hint at the suffering and loss, the trauma of losing a sense of place and what it might mean to have it back.
Here’s the thing about suffering: its edges don’t fit. Suffering pokes, intrudes, and leaks; it infects your work, splinters your focus, disrupts your peace of mind. Suffering is loud and pushy; it’s distracting and irritating. It’s hard to know what to do with it, how to appease the envy, the sadness, the neediness, the outrage at being betrayed. It pokes at you late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends; it sits on your chest like a bully in a school yard. Give me everything you’ve got, it says. Fix me.
What to do…what to do…what to do…
Look. As good as it feels to fit in, failure and loss also can be good things. Grief and loss give us the chance to see the rejected parts of the self—ineptitude, sloppiness, the lapse in judgment—that we reflexively shut out and bring them home to the wholeness of the Self. See it in your mind’s eye: welcome that awful part of you inside with generosity, like you’d welcome a good friend who is in trouble. Make it happen in your heart, in your concentration and intention.
The Jungian analyst and Episcopalian priest, John Sanford, wrote in his book Healing and Wholeness that …[W]holeness isn’t possible without pain, for there is great resistance to seeing our shadow; few face their darkness without being driven to it by a greater pain. Driven to it.
Let’s fling open the doors, shall we? Bring the ugly, awkward, and weird sides of ourselves inside to the home of the Self; give them dignity and a place at the table of life. Be whole. Because ignoring and suppressing pain doesn’t work. Avoiding pain through compulsive behaviors doesn’t work. Let the pain in, sit with it. It deserves your love and respect.David is pointing out the tiny houses that are newly vacant and ready for residents. He’s talking about the next round of construction. His kindness and internal stability, his sense of meaning, are palpable. I’ve been with him maybe 15 minutes, and I feel my mood shift to match his. It feels good.