I may have eaten a meal out of the trash in middle school, but I am no bum—I was just hungry and cheap. In fact, most of what I know about the homeless comes from stereotypes: that they are either crazy or lazy, and so I usually stay away.
That’s why I would never, for example, spend a week hanging out with a homeless man. But because I would never do it, I had to do it anyway.
His name was Michael and, like some of the homeless I have encountered, his stench could make your stomach churn into butter. I met Michael in Iowa City, Iowa, where I spent two weeks of my summer. He was there, sitting on a bench, a character that matched my preconceived notions.
Some kids are taught to stay away from drugs, but I was taught to stay away from homeless people, that they were dangerous and that they were couch potatoes without couches. But as I approached Michael, I asked him what there was to do in Iowa. Cook meth, I expected him to say.
“Nothing, man,” he said.
So cook meth, I thought.
“I just think,” he continued.
Michael was a homeless man who spent his time thinking—but about what? Which public bathroom had the best toilets?
But food and toilets were not on Michael’s mind. Instead, he told me he liked to study physics, as he pulled out a notebook filled with concepts we hadn’t covered in my honors class. He had been reading and writing in order to learn.
Every day, I came back to Michael, discussing politics and other topics with my homeless friend. And on the final day, I asked him the question I had been wondering about.
“You have the mental capacity to have a minimum-wage job at the least, so why not work?”
Michael told me it wasn’t worth it, that he would rather live on the streets and visit libraries than be paid $8 an hour to make sandwiches.
It turned out that the most valuable time I spent in Iowa was on the street, talking life with a man some would call a nut. And while mental illness is sad, Michael was a reminder to do what makes you happy—shower or no shower.
In life we’re taught to worry about money, food and shelter. But sometimes it is important to switch focus to the things in life that we enjoy. And so I challenge you to take a break from stress and find what fulfills you. For Michael, that was knowledge, but pleasure can come from anything: playing with the rubber duckies in your bubble bath or eating more than your body weight in meat. Thanks to Michael, that is now my typical Sunday afternoon.