Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns

The first article in this series on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February, 2010), asked “The 3 Big Questions”: Where did I go wrong? What have I done to deserve this? and What do I do now?

The third having been addressed in the previous posts, I'll now look at questions one and two, in reverse order.

The material in this and the forthcoming post gets personal as I tussle with decisions, taken long ago, that were, in some ways, radical. Authentic choices are becoming an endangered species in a world ruled by corporations and defined by credit-driven markets. It isn’t that the present world differs all that much from, say Thoreau’s. The vast majority of people still lead lives of quiet desperation. They accept and do not question paradigms, particularly economic ones, that aren't in any way superior to others or even justified by facts. What has changed is the cadre of elites enforcing them. With saturation media, they have more power now to brainwash, hoodwink, threaten and cajole than in the past, with the result that implementing choices off the mainstream has become more difficult.

HOMELESS, PART III : Sticking to Your Guns

Question 2: What did I do to deserve this?

Nothing. Plain and simple. I only ever really contemplate the question on days it’s grey and cold and John has kicked me out for privacy (for which I do not blame him). The rest of the time, I know better than to ask.

“Deserve” implies a causal connection between the morality of actions and their consequences. Good actions deserve rewards; bad actions deserve punishment. When things go well, one never asks: “What did I do to deserve this?” One only asks when things go wrong, the implication being that one’s actions have unjustly brought about reprisal.

I don’t think I've done anything to deserve my treatment at the hands of F [a roommate of eight years], or Lauren [another roommate, whom I referred to in Part I of this series], or Jan [a schizophrenic friend of nearly 20 years who cracked completely, with disastrous consequences for me], or even the weirdness that was the Mad Professor (see Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty).

In the first three cases, I was invited into their lives. Terms, both spoken and implied, governed our living arrangements, and I fulfilled them scrupulously—to the benefit of all, I believe. I never took advantage, shirking my responsibilities or making demands to which, in the inferior financial state, I was not entitled. I made no impositions and remained respectful of the other persons' needs. I tried at all times to be honest, and freely gave of what I had. I sought and offered friendship. My actions were impelled by love, respect and gratitude, coupled with the hope of furthering all aspects of my roommate’s lives.

I'm not claiming that I haven’t made mistakes, judgment errors that have paved the way for my present state of affairs. I have, and I'll get to those when I attack Question 1. But I don’t “deserve” this. I know which side my moral toast is buttered on, even if it’s fallen, as toast usually does, buttered side down.

The Jesus myth is one I hold dear, even though I cannot call myself a Christian. For me, it’s less about redemption or a reworked Covenant with an aleatory, vengeful god than about sticking to your guns. The Jesus who speaks to me is the one who never backs down, the one who’s willing to go the whole nine yards for his beliefs. It is the all-too-human Jesus who really doesn’t want to be tortured and killed, but who, at the end of the Gethsemane monologue, accepts that his ministry will have been meaningless if he abandons it just because the going got tough.

I extract from the Jesus myth a simple precept: What is the point of ethics or principles if you don’t stick to them? It’s obvious that the one thing Jesus of the Gospels truly hated was hypocrisy. It’s the one sin he does not forgive, and the only one he lifts his hand against. The Good Samaritan, the Pharisee at Prayer, the Cleansing of the Temple...these stories drip with contempt for anyone who proclaims one set of values but acts the opposite way.

(Another thing I like about the Jesus figure is that he’s a party animal. Why else would his very first supernatural act be to save the wedding at Canna by turning water into wine when they ran out of booze? And later on, he conjures up the makings for fish sandwiches—not once, but twice—for gatherings of thousands. Definitely an A-list guest if you’re planning a shindig.)

I've tried to live my life according to certain ethical and spiritual precepts. Or, more accurately, as I've matured and grasped the value of those precepts, I've worked at putting them into effect. That they’re in part—perhaps largely—responsible for my poverty and present state of homelessness doesn’t make them wrong. Neither does my sticking to them make me guilty in some way.

Next: Homeless, Part IV : Romanticism's Folly

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