Stranger In The Night

By Colleen Sinsky

At times I can’t decide if the ability to draw a strict delineation between “work” and “life” is an ability I would want to have.  At the risk of this being a “TMI” post, Friday night for me was a glaring example of how the work I’ve done at JOIN has had a major influence on me, whether or not it’s during work hours.  I was walking down my street laughing with a roommate, on our way home from a bar sometime in the am hours.  I don’t think it was raining, but it was cold enough that I was walking fast, looking forward to a space heater and a down comforter.  Passing some trendy brunch spot, we walked past an older woman kneeling next to a full shopping cart who was literally praying the Our Father out loud, oblivious to pedestrians.

The contrast between our lives in that moment hit me in the gut like an avalanche of every emotion that I prefer to keep buried.  I burst into tears a few steps later feeling these waves of guilt, hopelessness and rampant injustice.  I think that when I’m at JOIN, or out visiting my folks I’m operating in a mental mode conditioned to experience this type of scene, but something about seeing something this intimate, this heartbreaking, on my street broke down some walls that I’d put up without realizing it.

At home, my roommate (who is an Outreach Worker at a wonderful organization similar to JOIN called HomePlate) and I shared a conversation about our role as service providers in the midst of overwhelming need.  I realized that I’m not jaded or experienced enough to be able to walk by something like that without having an emotional reaction, and I don’t think that I would ever aspire to be able to turn off that reaction.  I’m realizing that I’ve internalized enough vicarious trauma that sometimes seeing heartbreaking tragedies like the shootings in Clackamas and Sandy Hook  Elementary in conjunction with the daily tragedy of homelessness can be almost too much. My role in all of this can feel so insignificant and at times like these it’s easy to feel powerless and pessimistic.

I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer to these big heavy questions from a macro perspective, but the truth is that my role in the world is in a much smaller reality. Zooming in to a more manageable and realistic view- my Portland community, the long and disorganized list of “My Folks” at JOIN, and strangers in need who I happen to meet- the oppression of large-scale pessimism lifts.  I’m reminded of that parable about throwing the starfish back out to sea, which I always thought was so corny.  My reality as a service provider though is that I’m granted some freedom by my limitations.  I do have the ability to make a huge positive difference in the lives of some people, and that’s what I’m going to have to focus on.

Feeling renewed, I went downstairs and got one of the donated sleeping bags I have in my basement and went back outside, without a clear goal but hoping to at least wish her a good night.  But by the time I got back there she’d moved along into the night.  Oh well. Back at home, my roommate pointed out that what actually matters is the fact that I had cared enough to go back outside and try.  He’s probably right- perhaps it is just having that willingness to risk reaching out that will help foster a brighter world.