Editor's Note: This is one of a series of "Best Crosscuts of 2009" we are running in this holiday week. This article originally appeared Nov. 18, 2009.
After a member of my family was diagnosed with schizophrenia he decided, as do many with this illness, that the chaos of being homeless would somehow cure the chaos in his head. He’s on my mind when in Seattle’s public spaces I see individuals cut off from mainstream society, most through no fault of their own.
Before my relative's illness came on I used to walk past these people as if they were invisible. But now (and with the help of writing teacher Peter Elbow's Believing and Doubting games) it's easier for me to Believe that they’re persons like me and the family member I love. So I say hello and stop to chat if there’s a minute to spare. They're often more open and accessible than my next-door neighbors and are often good company, clearly capable of a wider social life. It struck me that neighborly companionship should be more available for individuals trapped in the invisible ghettos of homelessness and mental illness: “Hi, let's talk. What’s up?”
It's hard to be this open when Doubting drives out Believing. Playing the Doubting Game, Elbow says, we use the skeptic’s tools of logic, reason, and empirical experiment to detect what might be wrong with an idea or action. Thinkers in the West ever since Descartes have been prone to considering the Doubting Game sufficient unto itself because it helps us avoid harmful notions and mistakes. But it also reinforces our natural tendency to say No instead of Yes to something that doesn’t fit our existing mental framework, even if the thing might do us good. Worse, flat-out skepticism can paralyze the will.
So, Elbow argues, we also need the Believing Game. Playing it, we "Say Yes" to something new, seeking whatever could be right, good, or useful in it. We embrace it, warts and all, entering into it and imagining ways in which it might be true. Often some humor creeps in, implying Doubt that the Belief makes complete sense, so no bright line divides the two games. Believing doesn't require being a True Believer, and Doubters don’t have to live on the Dark Side.
Then one day when I was volunteering at NAMI Greater Seattle, an advocacy nonprofit for people suffering from mental illnesses, an elderly man was kicked out of a support group because he repeatedly ridiculed others. In the past the facilitator had told “Hiro” that his bitter comments hurt the feelings of group members, a vulnerable and needy bunch of people. But prior warnings didn’t stop him that day from sneering at a woman who wept about her daughter's recently diagnosed schizophrenia: “She sure sounds like a loser. Your family’s going down like the Titanic.”
As Hiro packed up to catch his bus, I asked him why he attended a support group when support didn’t interest him. He replied, "Telling a hard truth supports me." "But isn’t there a rule here against saying harsh things to people?" I asked, and pointed to the poster on the wall: “Speak kindly to others at the table. Why do you come back to a place where you keep getting in trouble?"
"Well, I need to be someplace," Hiro said.
I looked at him. Heavy bags hung from his thin shoulders. The padded overcoat he wore that hot afternoon sported a homemade button saying NO MORE LIES. "Do you live with someone, Hiro?" He shook his head, wisps of gray hair floating at the edges of his battered Mariners cap: "No, I have PTSD and a couple other things."
He stood there swathed in baggage, and I thought, well, I'm a volunteer with a few hours to spare, and all of us (including me) "need to be someplace," and … the following week, at the time when the support group usually convened, Hiro and I had our first coffee date at Bus Stop Espresso. It was many months before he told me that during World War II he and his family had been sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho for Japanese-Americans — not that this explains who he is today. People are such mysteries.
Meeting weekly for coffee with Hiro was simple and its own kind of pleasure. So I started Believing that more of us who live secure lives rich in friendship could make a small weekly commitment to develop an interest in one individual isolated on the perimeter of the human circle and to form, if possible, a durable attachment.
More reasons to Believe in this kind of volunteering came from reports of research on the emotional benefits of friendship. A New York Times article discussed a Harvard study showing that “strong social ties could promote brain health as we age” and some longitudinal Australian research concluding that people with friends have a lower risk of mortality. Why not Believe that the personal chemistry of friendship would reinforce the benefits of anti-psychotic meds as they adjust the brain chemistry of someone with, say, schizophrenia? And wouldn’t the regular company of someone living a secure, connected life help stabilize individuals lacking the kinds of internal structures that are reinforced by a felt sense of community membership? Nonprofits and public agencies provide some personal contact, but who wants to be just another name on a paid case manager’s client list? We want to be chosen.
Easiest of all was Believing what Steve Lopez quotes psychiatrist Mark Ragins as saying in The Soloist, Lopez’s book about his friendship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a homeless street musician suffering from schizophrenia. Says Dr. Ragins: “'It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his [Ayers’] chemistry by being his friend.’”
Doubts had to play their part, too. Like most Americans I’d learned to fear people with mental illnesses. This was mainly because our society stigmatizes their symptoms and suffering. But mental illness also makes a person unpredictable, and we're wired to feel anxious and guarded around anyone who behaves erratically. I can sometimes detach from such feelings because I know that people with psychiatric disorders are no more dangerous, statistically speaking, than are people blessed with mental health, and because someone in my family lives amid delusions and imaginary voices. Nonetheless, I needed the Doubting Game to help me establish limits that would keep me safe and stable, and that would forestall concerns that the needs of a “coffee companion” might come to feel overwhelming:
Each coffee meeting would be scheduled during the daytime in a public place and would last for only one hour a week. I’d remember that I’m neither a psychotherapist nor a lay expert on mental illness, homelessness, or available resources — that my job is just to listen and chat over coffee in a neighborly way. I’d accept the likelihood that I would sometimes make mistakes, sit there stumped, or be rejected. Finally, I’d firmly Doubt that any human being can say Yes to all who need companionship.
Still, when I say Yes to one, Believing lets me imagine that some other Freestyle Volunteer will say Yes to one I don’t have time for. And Doubting helps me accept the fact that Freestyle Volunteering may never catch on nationwide, as I've hoped for. It may just be my life.
A different version of this article appeared in the November 2009 Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.