I’m a bit chilly in my heated house only because I keep the thermostat low to save both energy and costs. So for me, cold is a choice. For many of us, though, the cold-choice on these wintry days is where to find some temporary warmth before heading back out into the dripping ice-world that is Philadelphia in February.
Some snapshots from the frigid streets this week:
Clusters of people hanging out in the courtyard at St. Francis Inn, standing in the snow, wrapping their cold hands around the warming cups of oatmeal and hot coffee dispensed through the Inn’s window.
A handful of men and women who are homeless and some shelter residents discuss their favorite daytime places to go to stay warm: the library, hospital waiting areas, the train station, and for those with tokens or Senior passes for public transportation, the El or suburban shopping malls. A few of these folks look really old. I ask their ages. 76. 84. 87. Many worked for most of their adult lives, and in their retirement find themselves without a permanent place to lay their heads. Cold.
And then there is Danny, seeking shelter and medical help. Having completed a multi-year prison term a few days ago, he was given a bus ticket and good luck wishes from the PA Department of Corrections, then sent on his way. He inadvertently lost his small bag of possessions in a bus transfer halfway across the state, and arrived in Philadelphia with no income, no medications, some social service appointments scheduled for next week, but in the meantime, no home: Mom and Grandmom both died while he was in prison. Danny stayed in a hospital waiting room all night to stay warm. Today he is out in the cold.
But perhaps most daunting, is the coldness of our hearts, our hardened attitudes toward those living on the social margins. A few days ago, a Philadelphia Inquirer article noted increasing negativity toward people who are poor. In hard economic times, the middle class incubates and articulates harsh, critical opinions about people who are economically distressed, blaming them for their own suffering. You can read all about it and get the synoptic psycho-social analysis of this phenomenon here.
At its core, though, such frozen-hearted thinking is the result of an endemic belief that we are separate from and superior to people who are poor. In a country where most people self-identify as ‘religious’, this is downright shameful: all major spiritual traditions teach that such notions are not only illusory, but spiritually and socially deadening as well. We are One. If you are hungry, my belly rumbles. If you cry, I taste salt. If you are cold, I shiver.
The World is thawing, though, both literally and figuratively. During these lengthening February days, the steady drip drip drip of melting snow and icicles reminds us that ‘frozen’ is simply a temporary condition: with a little warmth and Light, even hardened, rock-solid ice eventually is transformed into flowing, life-sustaining water. What is frozen, even seemingly hard and impermeable hearts, can be warmed and melted. And there are hopeful signs that as a species we are moving in fits and starts toward a sure knowledge of our Oneness. More on that in a future post…..
Opening our hearts to people living on the edge is a choice. These human hearts are made for expansion, to be enlarged by compassion for each other. The challenge is to get past our own judgment, fear, and ego, and choose to stand in the Light, to allow what is frozen in us to thaw. All of us, rich and poor alike, harbor a freezer of some dimension somewhere in our hearts; we’re all stuck in some way. And all of us are in sore need of a Thawing Grace, which happily, we can choose to embrace.
After all, as Henry David Thoreau observed: “What are we but a mass of thawing clay?”