Why YOU Should Love the Homeless–Breaking the Cycle of Rejection

This past Saturday, my friends and I met Leonard, one of many living on the streets of LA, as we were walking in downtown.  Leonard started a conversation with us after we smiled and nodded at him when we were walking by.  Leonard was different because he enthusiastically responded to our small acknowledgement.  Most of the other people we encountered simply stared or totally ignored us.  This “hardness” is a natural result of their homelessness.

In order to survive, humans “harden” themselves to adverse circumstances. This hardness, or choosing not to care, protects from potential and constant disappointment.  In Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s father tells her again and again, “I cannot love thee.” At first, this made Catherine cry, but “then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed if I told her to say she was sorry for her faults(p43).”  Being rejected again and again hurts.  Better to be “safe” and closed off than to risk rejection by allowing other people’s actions to have sway.

Proverbs, too, sheds insight on this human response. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (13:12)  For people like Catherine, the idea is better to not hope at all than to hope and lose. In Catherine’s case, she initially craves her father’s love, but continual rejection leads her to adapt in a way so as to protect herself from continual hurt. So she chooses not to hope for her father’s love so as not to be constantly hurt by hope deferred.  For others, like Leonard, hope deferred can relate to a much broader spectrum such as hope of acceptance in society, a job, value, a place to live, or simply a place to stay the night. Rejection is an everyday occurrence in the life of the homeless, primarily that from passerby.  No wonder so many we passed simply ignored us—they are used to being ignored so choose to ignore so as to protect themselves.

Our actions have a cyclical affect.  Personal rejection leads to your rejection of others.  Being often ignored causes you to often ignore others.  Our own experience of the world is drastically shaped by other people’s actions toward us.  Just as bad put in, causes bad to be put out, a “good” action will likely have a similar effect.  Paying for a stranger’s coffee one morning will likely make them much more inclined to be extra nice and generous towards other people that day.  Our talking to Leonard (hopefully) brightened his day.  However, there is a substantial difference between short and long term cyclical effects.

It will take much more than a brief encounter to reach someone hardened by a life-time of abuse.  The Proverbs concludes by saying, “But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” The desire to be loved and accepted is at the core of our being.  However much we may pretend otherwise, or harden ourselves from this desire, it is impossible to be “okay” without feeling loved and accepted.  This feeling can come in many different ways—from a stranger, from God, from a significant other, from a friend.  Constant love is needed to break a cycle of constant hate.

We cannot provide a constant source of love for every hurting individual we meet.  But we can constantly be showing love to every individual we meet.  We are able to do this because of Christ’s love in us.  We love because He loves us.  The ultimate fix to despair is the Gospel. I like to think that Leonard was different—”soft,” receptive, open— because he had the Spirit of God dwelling inside of him.  During our conversation, Leonard shared some verses he had just memorized that day.  Leonard had an eternal hope that affected his perspective.  Yes, his earthly circumstances did not suck any less because of his faith.  But his hope-based perspective allowed him to face the world with expectation instead of deferred born complacency.

This is not to say we should not be concerned about very tangible and earthly needs.  We are very much supposed to be concerned about physical brokenness! We can often love the hurting best by providing for them in physical ways.  While I am not sure this was the best possible way to love Leonard, my friends and I chose not to give him money but instead buy him some food from a nearby store.  I would have felt very convicted if I prayed for Leonard without addressing his physical needs (James 2:16).  Providing for the hurting in physical ways often substantiates our verbal proclamation of love.

Even though most people did not respond to my smile or friendly hello, I still think it was right to do it.  If I stopped saying hello simply because I would get spurned, then I, too, would become a part of the destructive cycle.  Don’t let other people’s responses determine your actions.  We are called to be cycle breakers!  Wherever you go, whether it be walking down the streets of LA or in your office, look for opportunities to show Christ’s love—both through word and deed.  Whether it be a simple smile and a hello or buying a meal for a person, your small action can help break the cycle of a hope-deferred existence.

*Quotes taken from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” Penguin Classics.

*Image via Wikimedia Commons

Pull Question: Wuthering Heights

Spoiler alert: This post is full of plot and character details from Wuthering Heights.

For Heathcliff and Catherine, is it better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?

Here’s another way to phrase this question: Is it better to live passionately or safely? Better to spend a single day in the sun or to live one hundred years in the depths of a cave, never to experience the bright world?

Heathcliff and Catherine loved and lost—they loved passionately, and both lost their lives as a result. Without their disastrous love for each other, Catherine might have enjoyed a relatively long and content life with her husband, Linton. Heathcliff would have been free to move away and create his own life, instead of remaining at Wuthering Heights to ruin both Catherine and her family.

But comfortable safety and happiness would not have been better for these two than the brief moments of ecstasy they experience in each other’s arms before their deaths. Both Heathcliff and Catherine are innately passionate. They approach both love and hatred with intensity—the word “passivity” is not part of their vocabulary. Because of this quality, they are both capable of a love “deep as…the sea,” and it is much better for them to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

Heathcliff paints a very clear picture for the reader of love and loss. He cannot bear to move away from Catherine, even when she marries his rival Linton and makes both men’s lives miserable by insisting that she can have them both. When she does die, he pleads with her spirit to “Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” (169) He is so desperate for her presence that he would rather be haunted by her ghost than live alone, cut off from every connection with her. Heathcliff gets his wish: haunted by Catherine’s ghost for almost twenty years, he finally dies from lack of sleep and food because her spirit becomes more visible to him. Although the dead Catherine kills him, Heathcliff dies in joy and ecstasy, with a “frightful, life-like gaze of exultation.” (335) Even in death, Heathcliff is a creature of great passion, rapturous to finally join Catherine.

The picture of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff is a little different, because she is the one who dies first. Her love for Heathcliff is a fact of life—part of her mind is always fixed on him, whether or not he is physically with her. She regards her love for her husband Linton as “the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” (82) She views Heathcliff as inseparable from herself, and even calls him part of “my own being.” (82)

Even though their all-consuming love leads to misery in life and finally death, it is this very ability to love that defines these two characters.

Anyone who has read Wuthering Heights will agree (I hope) that both Catherine and Heathcliff are nasty characters who would not make good role-models. However, they do have something to teach us about living with abandon, instead of protecting our hearts so we won’t get hurt. While Heathcliff and Catherine make many mistakes, the passion with which they love each other is exemplary. Christ loved us with abandon: he overturned tables in the synagogue, ensuring the enmity of the Jewish leaders; he risked being ceremonially unclean in order to reach out to the diseased and mangled; he died a gruesome death out of his passionate love to save humanity. As Christians, we are also called to lives of passionate love for Christ, no matter the cost. The Apostle John says it all when he condemns spiritual safety: “Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”