I’m in the middle of an internship in Cape Town, South Africa, that has taught me more about humanity than any other experience thus far. Part of the time, I work at a support organization for a psychiatric hospital. The rest of the time I spend at a step-up/step-down facility that happens to be part of this same organization.
My first day I helped to wash the hospital patients’ hair. One of many volunteer projects, the hair salon is definitely among the most popular. I am completely and absolutely disgusted by hair: I don’t want to see any loose strands, I don’t want to touch anyone else’s hair, I don’t want them touching my hair. And here I was, washing hair that’s lucky if it sees shampoo weekly. I remember one woman’s hair being so dirty it turned the sink water a muddy brown. In that moment, I felt so much shame, so much disappointment in myself.
Who am I to deem myself better than these people? Because they’ve been admitted to a hospital, because they’ve been given a label, because for a myriad of reasons they can’t care for themselves the way the rest of us do, I somehow can be superior. Bullshit. Jesus washed the feet of His Father’s children; I can wash the hair of a fellow human being.
Somewhere along the way society rejects those who need society most. But what sort of society do they need? Clearly not the one they were born into. A society which revokes the membership of those who struggle, who are dirty and scuffed up, is no society of which to be a part. Every single human being on this planet is someone’s child. Parents or not, we’ve all felt that love, that unbreakable connection to a child. This sort of love, beautiful as it is, breaks my heart. I refuse to think about the bullies my baby cousins may face when they enter public school, yet the family of this woman had to think about the torment of life in a psychiatric institution.
Where did this attitude come from? Who sits us down as children and tells us that by an accident of birth, we’re better than everyone else? Somehow I lucked out. Somehow I get to reverse this and work with people who remind me every day that we are equal and that strength is in the struggle.