I talked a little about this topic a couple months ago. Abundance and lack. But today, I was thinking about it a little bit differently. Imagine a small rural town of 100 people or so. The kind of place with a one stoplight and a business or two. The families who live there maybe have farmland or they drive to work in the nearest city. Now imagine one of the children in that town starts showing symptoms of schizophrenia as a teenager. A family of three - the parents and this kid. The parents don't know better, so this mental illness is left untreated. Perhaps the family can't cope. They give up. Eventually that kid grows up and tries to start a life of his own. So anyway, now you have a man who can't take care of himself. He's old enough that his parents pass away. He's 40 now. He can't maintain the appearance of sanity for any stretch long enough to hold down a job. He loses his apartment. He has no other choice than to sleep on the bench outside the gas station at that one stoplight in town. That first night is rough and confusing and hopeless. Day one of homelessness. Do you think the people who live there walk right by him? Do they ignore him? Are they annoyed that they are forced to see his sad dirty face that next morning as they're gassing up their cars? Does the gas station attendant shoo him away? "Go somewhere else!" Maybe. I really don't know. But my gut tells me someone, or everyone, helps this guy out in that situation. They offer him a place to sleep. Someone recognizes he needs to see a doctor. Someone has mercy for this poor guy and gives him a lift to the city where hopefully he can get some assistance, some medical care. I don't know. But I hope that's what happens. What I do know is that's not what happens here in Philly. In a city where hundreds of thousands of people (or maybe more than a million) work every day. How many homeless people do you think there are here? Hundreds? Maybe more than a thousand? I looked it up. There are more than 12,000 homeless people in this city. And what happens to those people? They're a nuisance. They're ignored. It was 25 degrees outside a few days ago. And I saw the same homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks the next morning. They're just there. "Can I get some money for something to eat?" That phrase we hear several times a day. It's an annoyance. The phrase itself, the request - that's the problem to most people. It's too much effort to even respond with a "no". Instead, we look straight ahead and keep walking. I don't know what I think we should do. But it doesn't seem like what we're doing now is the right thing. And I know this is just one problem. 12,000 suffering people. Maybe we're not helping them because we're focused on solving bigger problems. Maybe we're actively helping to fund books and supplies for underprivileged kids who couldn't otherwise have the bare minimums for public school. Maybe we're volunteering at a shelter for battered women to help get them on their own two feet. Maybe we're offering companionship at a hospice center to people without families. Or maybe we're watching TV. And playing with our phones. And updating our fantasy football rosters. I really don't know. But it seems like we should be doing something. Anything.
[caption id="attachment_3062" align="alignleft" width="300"] What is there to say no to?[/caption]In college, I studied film criticism more or less. I took classes like Screenwriting, Hitchcock, and French New Wave. My major was called Film Studies. In one of my classes - Sophomore year I think - the professor wanted us to get in touch with our inner creative voice. He started things off by explaining how everyone is influenced by their own personal background. How everyone brings into every interaction their own baggage. Things like race and gender and class and personal prejudices, etc. Our task was to look into ourselves and think about how our own experiences defined us. And then deliver a creative assignment illustrating that. It could be a short story or a screenplay or something visual. I decided to make a short film - well, a video. The problem is, I looked at myself as a white, male, middle class, college student from the suburbs. How could my perspective possibly be anything other than "embarrassingly normal"? What could I possibly have to say? That's the problem you run into when you ask a young person to define himself. I didn't solve the problem. Instead, I focused the piece on my Scottish/English ancestry and how that influenced me. In reality, I think there were a hundred or even a thousand other things that made much more of an impact on my character. I was just too shortsighted to see it. I was not self aware. I turned in the project and was graded accordingly. No harm done. But I think back to that assignment from time to time. Since then, I've become painfully self aware. I constantly think about why I react the way I do to certain things. What baggage am I bringing into relationships? Am I an asshole? Am I pretentious? Am I acting like a loving husband/father/worker? My thoughts are often filled with these kind of navel-gazing ponderings. And I think it's healthy. I want to make a positive impact whenever possible. And when I fuck up, I want to feel it, and hopefully make up for it. And even more interesting to me, when I look back on that assignment I see a 19-year-old kid who was quite unusual. I brought a ton of baggage into every interaction. I was not, even as a white, middle class male, a "normal" kid. I was vegetarian, agnostic, into psychedelics and pot, Libertarian, skinny, Floridian, wild-haired, into punk rock, artsy, alcoholic, the list goes on and on. If I could go back in time, I could coach that kid into delivering one hell of a short film. All that angst and energy could have been focused into something visceral and wonderful. But we learn. Time goes on. We gain perspective and focus. And sometimes we end up all right in the end.
I've never been in a fight, but I have been beaten. 7th Grade When I was in 7th grade, I was standing in the courtyard outside school in downtown Tampa with all the other kids waiting for school to open. My friends and I were bused in from the suburbs about 45 minutes into the inner city. The buses dropped us off early before the class started, so we all had to wait out there in a massive group. Hundreds of us. I was standing there holding my school bag with books in it. I had a duffel bag style thing, not a backpack. A couple of kids were running around, chasing each other. Just being silly. One of them, a local kid, weaved through the crowd and accidentally kicked my bag. He didn't see it and it hit his shin pretty hard. He stopped on a dime, turned to face me, and closed-fist punched me in the jaw. Then he took off running and laughing again with his friends. 6th Grade A year earlier, I was on the bus on the way home from school. 45 minute ride from Tampa back to the burbs. A tough kid, sort of a rocker kind of guy, was sitting next to me on the bus. I only kind of knew him. Same social circle, but we weren't friends. One of us sort of accidentally bumped the other with his elbow. And it was kind of a funny accident. Like the elbow to the ribs "haha that was a funny joke" thing that dorky dads do. The other retaliated with the same elbow move and laughed. It was funny. It went back and forth like that, harder and harder. Then instead of elbowing him, I raised my hand and sort of slapped his face. Kids would slap fight all the time. And I thought it would be funny. Because sometimes I'm an idiot. He stood up and punched me in the face. He pushed me into the aisle. I fell onto my back. He stood over me and started kicking me in the ribs. Over and over. Then his finishing move was, he stomped my face. I was bloody and bruised. I don't remember how the fight broke up, but I remember the bus got to my street and I got off with my friends. There was no fight. Just one guy beating up another guy. And when I got home I looked in the mirror to check out my bloody mouth. There was a crystal clear impression of the tread from his Vans sneakers across my cheekbone. You could even see the "Vans" lettering. Since then To this day, I've never punched someone in the face. Does that make me a pacifist? Or maybe a wimp. Is it unusual? It seems like every guy has been in a real fight at least once in their life. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I want to fight someone. Fighting certainly isn't smart or right. But I do look back and kind of wish I stood up for myself more. Though I don't know what good it would have done or what kind of person I would have become. I guess I turned out okay.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the hunger and suffering in this world of true abundance. We have, in this country, an obesity epidemic. In essence, people consume more calories than they burn off. I doubt anyone would argue, but if you don't believe me, spend a few minutes in any Wal Mart and count the bloated bellies. Meanwhile, others starve. The homeless, the poor, the forgotten millions in third-world countries. Clearly, there is enough food to go around. It's just that not everyone gets to have it. Our country is built on personal responsibility. You want food, work for it. And I wouldn't argue that. But there's also an apparent selfishness seeing a portly person strut by a homeless man literally starving to death in the street. Unfortunately, I don't have a solution for you. Wealth and abundance helps you set up your family for future success. Earning money is good for your kids' college funds. Driving a safe car is probably a good idea. Who could argue buying a comfortable house so your family won't have to worry about having heat in the winter? Still, there's setting yourself up for success and then there's excess. I'm not a religious person by any stretch, but I am reminded of this quote from the Bible: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." I've also been thumbing through the Bhagavad Gita lately and there are similar themes. "Work done with selfish motives is inferior by far to selfless service... Those who seek to enjoy the fruits of their work are, in reality, unhappy." Something the Bhagavad Gita advises, which I find interesting, is to give only to the deserving. Basically, do not take more than you need, but do not give the excess away frivolously. Hold on to that excess until you find someone who needs and deserves it. I'm not saying I follow this advice (yet), but the idea is admirable. What to do next? Where do we go from here? How can we help the people who need and deserve it, while hopefully spreading the idea of selflessness?
In high school, I became enamored with Jack Kerouac's books and the idea of experiencing suffering as a beautiful part of life. He wrote about giving up his worldly possessions, sharing with others what little money he did make, living out of boxcars and drinking cheap blackberry wine when he could find it. I was a comfortable suburban kid. Nothing to be ashamed of. But I wanted to see what I was made of. Could I experience some minor suffering and see the joy in it? Life is hard. Suffering is part of life. But when you take a step back, there's beauty in all of it. That's the idea anyway. So I stopped sleeping in my bed. I'd roll out a thin blanket on the floor and sleep there every night. I was 17 or 18 at the time. I did this for months. And occasionally I fasted. For a day or two at a time. I was really good at it. I'd only drink water. No food. And a glass of juice once a day for energy. I started getting into tattoos. Nothing crazy. Nothing that would be seen in a job interview. But I've spent probably 12 hours total under the needle. That's the kind of pain you remember for a while. I learned a lot about myself. I learned my physical limits. And I did see beauty through the pain. I think there's a lot to say for testing oneself. Forcing yourself to find time to work out. Putting in extra effort at the office. Eating healthy, even when you want something else. Facing your fears. Test yourself (in a safe way) from time to time. It can really help bring things into focus. There's a cliche that goes something like "without evil, there would be no good". You could take it to mean that without pain, there would be no pleasure. But I think there's another way to look at it. There is always both. The only reason it's fair to say "life is suffering" is because life is truly everything. Life IS. Might as well live it.