ON THE BEAT: A homeless woman pulls a packed trolley through Cape Town. The author ponders over how people on the street remain upbeat in the face of dire circumstances. Picture: LAILLE JACK/African News Agency (ANA)
Hope, a word we all understand to mean a reason to believe something good will happen. When we hope for an outcome, we want it to happen, anticipate that it will happen. Interestingly, in archaic English, hope had the related but different meaning of a feeling of trust.

Celebrated Russian thinker and writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said: “To live without hope is to cease to live.”

The idea of living without hope sounds bleak and painful.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, wrote what some consider the seminal work on hope. Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was as the culmination of his years of studying what gives us purpose in life, based largely on his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl believed that people are strongly motivated to live meaningful lives, which they can do even in extremely challenging situations. After the horrors he endured at the hands of the Nazis, he was still able to conclude: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

I often think about this in the context of the daily struggles of those living on the street and wonder how the homeless manage to remain positive in the face of such dire living circumstances.

I am always amazed when talking to the many Souper Troopers just how upbeat they are. Women who put make up on each day to face the world, men who rise early to provide for their loved ones by mining our garbage for treasures. Day by day they troop on, making a life for themselves.

Just before Frankl, US psychologist Abraham Maslow published his theory on the hierarchy of human needs. Many of you will be familiar with the triangular representation of his theory. At the bottom, our most basic needs are physiological. One step up are our needs for safety and security followed by our need to belong and be loved. The upper two rungs are our esteem and, ultimately, self-actualisation.

People who live on the street go daily without their most basic human needs, Maslow’s first level, being met. These include food, air, water, warmth, rest and bodily functions. This is the part of our lives those of us who live in homes often take for granted - that when we are hungry there will be food; when we are thirsty there will be water; when we are cold there will be clothes and blankets and duvets; when we are tired there will be a comfortable bed and when we need to relieve ourselves, there will be a toilet.

It is unthinkable to imagine living without any one of these and many of us don’t give these basics much thought because they are just that - basic.

In contrast, Maslow’s next level in the hierarchy of human needs, safety and security, consumes many of us daily, especially in crime-ridden South Africa.

We build high walls, install state-of-the-art security systems and create private sanctuaries in to which we can retreat.

In short, when circumstances allow, we make a home for ourselves in which we can feel safe and secure.

However modest that home, it is ideally a place in which we can have privacy from the prying eyes of others and be out of reach of those who wish to do us harm.

Maslow’s hierarchy only makes place for psychological needs - starting with the need to belong and be loved - once the first two sets of needs are taken care of.

This seems to imply that if our basic human needs are not fulfilled and we don’t feel safe or secure, we are unable to focus on our higher needs for human connection and personal development. This seems to me at odds with Frankl’s idea of the “why” - the source of meaning in our lives - being able to lift us beyond our current reality.

To summarise crudely, Frankl concludes that what we need to live a meaningful life is something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. These three relate to the creative or productive part of our life, our human connection and our overall attitude to life. They also dovetail elegantly with the three cornerstones of Souper Troopers: dignity, love and respect.

“I’ll see you again next month,” were Kerry’s parting words to the Souper Troopers every time we spent time with them. This, the only promise she made to her new friends, gave them the slightest bit of hope in their otherwise often hopeless lives.

And so, I too will see you again next month.

* Armed with degrees from UCT, Unisa and Cambridge University, Caryn Gootkin began practising law but soon realised the cut-throat corporate world was not for her. She began retraining and working as a writer, sub-editor and proofreader, and discovered her voice and a passion for speaking up for the voiceless. In early 2017 she joined Kerry Hoffman and together they run Souper Troopers, an NPO working to eradicate homelessness.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus