Living in a city like San Francisco is a nigh-constant assault of people in pain that want so much. Like most people, I learned to screen it out. I walk through the streets as if they were empty, clenched, haunted by a vague anxiety and fear.
While this is by no means healthy, this makes it less energetically expensive to leave the house. It still was hard, so for years, my goal was to get better at two things:
- Avoidance. Noise cancelling headphones and poor vision meant I actually don’t see or notice people around me. Just pretending doesn’t work, since subconscious movements and eye patterns will give you away. I also walk very quickly, so no one has much chance to engage with me.
- Boundaries. Getting better at refusals, saying “Sorry, no.” Having a policy not give money to people makes this easier. I break it sometimes when I feel like it or want to encourage things I like (like a cat on their head, great musical talent, raw charisma, or something that makes me feel genuinely good)
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped off a box of delicious sandwich leftovers from their company office, more than I could eat. It seemed like a good idea to hand them out to people on the street, so I did. There were a couple immediate differences when I did this.
- Seeking. I was on the lookout for people who might want these sandwiches. When I came across someone and they asked me for spare change, I was pleased! I could offer them a delicious sandwich! It was a positive, not a negative, that they were requesting my attention. I was a lot less afraid. I was also surprised that it took so long to give out the sandwiches. When I’m avoiding, I feel as if there are people on every block. But when I was seeking them out, I realized that some people I thought were omnipresent were only there some days of the week.
- No, But. I had something of value I wanted to offer. Interactions were positive sum, relieving me of unwanted sandwiches and reducing waste, plus the people who got the sandwiches were quite happy about them. I was worried they’d be offended and prefer money, but this didn’t happen. I didn’t feel any guilt or awkwardness.
This made me wonder: If I had something concrete I could offer people that they would be happy to get over spare change, this would reduce a lot of my anxiety of living in a city. Ideally, this would be relatively cheap for me to provide and easy to carry everywhere. A pleasing social experience is probably the best thing, though I don’t know how to comfortably provide those on the fly.
Luckily, I got another box of sandwiches a few weeks later. Much of the same thing happened. I felt a lot less fear of engagement with the people around me. When my favorite camp had disappeared, I was surprised to find that I was disappointed.
This is the opposite of dissociation. Instead of assuming all of the sensations around me would be negative, I paid attention. I realized that actually, yes, I did like the feeling of being around some of these people and camps more than others.
I haven’t gotten any free boxes of sandwiches lately. But even now, when I recognize someone or spot my “favorite” tents, I tend to feel more interest and calm acknowledgement (or even curiosity) than avoidance and anxiety.
There’s still a ways to go. My next step is to have actual conversations with the people I’m curious about. I’ve only dared to with sandwiches in tow.