We humans are not wired to be rejected. And when we have to deal with it, our spirit often cannot but turn to unhealthy ways of coping with it.

Since 4 days I am walking the streets of Mexico City. Being tall, having silver grey hair and travelling alone does make me stand out. No way I could go unnoticed in a mercado where people flock to buy their veggies or at one of the abundant streetfood stalls where I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For 4 days now I haven’t left “my” neighborhood. I walk about 1 mile to the left and 1 mile to the right, on this square of the city I find everything I need. And all I need to know too. Walking the same streets every day, the city is slowly unveiling her little mysteries to me. I do not have to go sightseeing all over town in order to understand with what speed her blood is running. On the contrary, visiting museums, churches, ruins and the like will only give me a skindeep understanding of the city’s vibes. I will only see the woman having dressed up for a dance party. Watching the city wake up from a bench in a pedestrian zone at dawn shows me her runny makeup from the night before.

Over 40% of Mexicans are poor so I am not surprised to see some homeless people sleeping rubbed up against church walls. What does surprise me, is that I somehow identify with them more than with the other Mexicans. What makes me feel that way? Well, we are both being totally ignored by the others who are walking the streets. We are both outstanders who are being rejected. And although I do have some interactions with people, those interactions only have to do with an exchange of goods for money. I am invited to participate in another way just as much as the homeless: Not.

Being rejected is what Reuben Miller in his book Halfway Home describes as happening to reentering citizens in almost all aspects of life: they cannot rent a house, will not be offered a job, cannot stay with familiy members at the risk of the family being evicted. They are being put out on the streets with a couple of Dollars or, when lucky, are being sent to a halfway house for which the state pays the first month’s rent. How to be able to pay for the $500 that the next month will cost? 

We need not be surprised that this total rejection by society leads them straight back to where they came from.

Being rejected shames us, and I’m not talking about feeling ashamed of something we did. I am talking toxic shame which causes us to feel ashamed of ourselves, causes us to believe that we are not enough, not worth any good stuff. Being rejected ultimately gives us the idea that we are not worthy of love and connection. 

Coming from a place where rejection has been a daily dish in the form of bullying, disenfranchisement and punishment and arriving in a non-welcoming society, pushes returning citizens into non-existence essentially. And that doesn’t help someone to go through barriers of change, why would one try? They’re not being noticed for who they are anyway. Thus, being rejected may lead to self-blame and withdrawal. Shyness, people pleasing, perfectionism, over- and underachieving and also any kind of addiction are examples of pain-avoidant behavior by which rejected people withdraw.

Rejection may also lead to the seemingly opposite, having someone end up with somewhat grotesque ideas about oneself, only put in place to try to fortify the underlying immense fragile self-belief. No longer able to see one’s own flaws and not wanting to be reminded of them in any way, a person engages in control seeking manipulation, blaming others and agression rather than solution seeking. Study shows that more than 30% of the prison population is labeled with a Anti Social Personality Disorder (about 10 times as high as in general population) whereby narcisitic traits more or less are present: Bi-polar disorder, Borderline, Narcissism and Sociopathy. I don’t want to withhold a remark in a Human Rights Watch report though to put things in perspective: Yet, according to psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers, who has examined mental health services in many prisons, correctional mental health staff have a tendency to over-diagnose the presence of ASPD, essentially using it as a default diagnosis for anyone who seems to have mental problems of some sort but does not have an obvious Axis I illness. A diagnosis of ASPD becomes, in fact, a moral rather than clinical judgment; prisoners with APSD are “bad” not “mad”.

For most prisoners rejection was a given early in childhood already: emotional abandonment, physical and or sexual abuse… we all know the list. We humans are not wired to be rejected. And when we have to deal with it, our spirit often cannot but turn to unhealthy ways of coping with it. 

This morning I was up early and sat down in a square waiting for the bakery to open. A homeless man passed me and said: “Bon dia”. I replied of course and we both smiled a big smile. A bit later, while I was eating a tortilla at a street stall, a drunken man passed me, turned around, touched my arm saying: ”O, you are so beautiful.” He came closer, lookd at my face and exclaimed:”O, and your eyes! Your eyes are as beautiful as the sky!” I thanked him and he smiled a huge smile, then turned to cross the street unsteadily (and almost got hit by a car). The woman who had also been eating at the stall, wished me a great day before she left and then, as I headed home and greeted another homeless man, I saw his eyes lighten up. And so did my heart. We had been noticed! In this instant in time we both had been accepted by the other.

Since I am currently reading Halfway Home, I am comparing my experiences in this city with those of returning citizens in the U.S. You may think they’re two different things, but in essence they aren’t. I am convinced healing is to be found in being acknowledged, in being included, in belonging. Be it in Mexico City or Florida, healing and change are found in knowing one’s existence matters to others.

Now, what if we would collectively decide to stop rejecting our returning citizens (yes, OUR returning citizens). To not leave it to legislature to change the situation, but to give our fellow citizens a job, invite them to dinner, offer them shelter when they return to us. I could see this happen. Or am I being just too much of a dreamer?