Waning Compassion Things Fall Apart: Can We Hold?

December 29, 1990|By Terrence S. Kenny

THE HOMELESS are not disappearing, despite their having ascended to the status of last year's fashionable issue. This Christmas season, the traditional spirit seems, for many, difficult to manufacture. Just a short while ago social realities like poverty and homelessness elicited, if not solutions, then widespread compassion; now they appear part of a pattern of stressful experience, against which Americans react with frustration and hostility. Pundits have diagnosed a new disease: compassion-fatigue syndrome.

More than fatigue is at work. Economy and society have taken on a more frightening aspect, a leering uncertainty. Many of us tighten anxious fingers around possessions that seem newly insecure. Those same fingers will check the locks on doors closed against a world that, contrasted with our memory, seems crueler and more crazed. The world outside our doors is too close to home; it threatens the fragile territories we try to establish and maintain.

We begin to see the inhabitants of that world outside as competitors or enemies, or both. We begin to fear them as beings from a dimension of chaos, ready to invade our stable domain, the hallowed ground of imagined permanence. Nations, races and classes loom as principalities and powers, demonic forces that exert a negative influence over the very structure of reality. Things are not as once they were. The greater world does not mirror the lesser. Evil must be at work.

Who personifies this evil, if not the hard-eyed, aggressive interloper from the fringe of civil society, whose presence speaks of disorder and fragmentation? The homeless man who blocks our path on a downtown street is social and economic chaos made flesh, reaching into our ordered consciousness like a hand from hell itself. He is the embodied grin of a devil who whispers of things falling apart, just to see if we ourselves have a center that can hold.

Service organizations attempt to soften the features of the homeless. Photographs of wide-eyed waifs, innocent and sad, accompany fund-raising appeals. This is the face of poverty, they imply. Advocates point to percentages among the homeless: of children, of families, of working men and women. These poor, they say, are worth caring about.

Such attempts at legitimization are tragically misguided. The waning of compassion is a process that will not stop for a hungry child. It is a manifestation of a more general withdrawal from the perimeter of public encounters, where men and women must respond to each other as human beings. It is a process that begins with hostility toward those easily designated as somehow beyond the pale of legitimate concern, and ends only in the isolation of walled-in selfhood, where each of us can sit, as Joyce would say, 'midst the icy circle of our own accomplishments.

City streets are being abandoned, left to those with no place to go except desperation, because we are afraid of confronting the human face of social chaos. The call for cities to get the homeless off the streets and out of the bus stations, by force if necessary, and the battle cry of homeless advocates for a recognized right to housing, are merely contrapuntal voices in an antiphon of avoidance. A state empowered either to sweep ''undesirables'' away from public spaces or to enforce a universal right to housing in the face of imminent fiscal collapse, is an instrument for the continuing transformation of society into an aggregate of mutually hostile and resentful individuals, all looking away from each other and toward the great protector of interests, all equally desirous of avoiding even the chance of real community.

The scam, the hustle, the growing belligerence on the streets, the hatred in the air, are not to be denied in an attempt to make the poor and homeless more palatable to present taxpayers or potential donors. They are as much an aspect of present reality as a hungry baby's cry. They speak prophetically of mutual dehumanization, a dance in which partners spin each other, through a spiral of hardening perceptions, downward into death.

The author is casework supervisor at Christopher Place shelter.

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