A shared reading session can be the brightest mirror
“It struck me that as I deny acknowledgement to someone living on the street, I deny an expression of a part of myself. As I walk past pretending not to see them, I am also pretending that I am above them somehow, that we are not – in essence – the same…..”
Amongst the many benefits of the shared reading process is the private and personal reflection that it allows. As we always bring who we are (this collection of memories, experiences and thoughts we call ‘I’) to literary texts, the meaning the text has for us will be filtered through the prism of these experiences. After we have experienced a shared reading session, we would (during the reading and ensuing discussion) often have uncovered an aspect of ourselves for further reflection (if we care or dare to look!) this gives us an insight into our behaviour and at the same time, a possibility to change in a direction that is more commensurate with what we consider to be our values. Essentially, it gives us an opportunity to live more into the truth of who we are. This happened to me on Sunday at a regular shared reading group I attend at the Mid Mountains Neighbourhood Centre.
We had already got halfway through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The yellow wallpaper (during which I had begun to suspect that I do not properly listen to my wife) when Rosemary (our facilitator) gave us a copy of the poem New Stanzas for Amazing Grace by Allen Ginsberg. The group naturally saw and commented on the heartbreak of anonymity that co-exists with homelessness (‘I passed with eyes of stone’) and how in a country with the wealth of Australia the existence of homelessness was bordering on criminal.
For me however the poem precipitated a much more personal reflection. One that was less about banging the drum of social justice than it was about sitting silently in reflection on my own behaviour. For I confess that at times my busy, focused mind and (quite frankly) my wish to avoid feelings of discomfort – perhaps even guilt? – lead me to deny the eye contact or the friendly hello that I would offer to someone in a supermarket queue, to someone homeless on the street (‘afraid to give the time’).
It struck me that as I deny acknowledgement to someone living on the street, I deny an expression of a part of myself. As I walk past pretending not to see them, I am also pretending that I am above them somehow, that we are not – in essence – the same. I am subtly saying to myself that ‘I would not find myself in that position’, that it must have been ‘bad choices’ rather than a combination of intolerable circumstances compounded by a lack of support that led to them being on the street – and if I can put their current situation down to ‘bad choices’, then I can put my current situation down to ‘good choices’. See how quickly I rush to judgement!
This quick and easy reasoning gives credence to my ignorant behaviour. It allows me to tell myself that people living on the street are not worthy of my time, or the effort of saying hello (not as worthy as the strangers in the car park, or at the coffee shop). This is not a pleasant reflection and I could have written an article about the plight of homelessness and how I believe in a greater redistribution of wealth, perhaps a tax on empty properties, however that would be to deny the power of Ginsberg’s poem, during reading of which, I felt the stabbing pain of self-reflection.
Now that I am no longer ignorant of this facet of my behaviour, now that I have (thanks to this wonderful poem and shared reading experience) this knowledge, the next action I take when I encounter a homeless person will be a choice. I know that I cannot solve homelessness, but what I can do is not continue to deny the humanity of people experiencing it. I can say hello and I can smile. A smile much more than a donation is a symbol of solidarity. It is a sign that whilst I may not know your struggle, I acknowledge it and I see you and I won’t deny the dignity owed to you simply because you exist. It communicates (more than giving money) that we are sharing something (being alive), and it recognises that had my experiences and circumstances been different I could have very easily been in the same situation.