You hear these stories. People in the most extreme situations, calamities that by all rights should have killed them, at least according to Newtonian physics. I remember a mountain climber who fell a hundred feet, broke his leg, then spent the next three days crawling and hopping five miles back to his base camp. He subsisted only on snow and little splashes of melted ice. He lost thirty percent of his body weight. He spent the last 24 hours of his ordeal hallucinating and being mentally tortured by a catchy pop song that kept clanging in his head. He described it as a feeling of being erased. No dignity or recognizable sense of self.
This is the story of Simon Yates as described by his climbing partner Joe Simpson in the book Touching the Void. A documentary of the same title features interviews with Simpson and Yates. They describe how they were young men, fit, strong as hell, and more than a little arrogant. They wanted more. Always more. More risk = more challenge = more effort = a more esctatic high when the goal is achieved. Mountain climbers, cliff divers, and countless other adventurers are inspired to risk death because it makes them feel more alive. Because there are worse thing than dying, and more valuable things than security.
One could say that to seek the American Dream is the opposite of risk taking. Your goal is to achieve sufficient financial prosperity that you and your family will never again be in jeopardy. Never want for material things, and certainly never face real danger. The giant suburban palace, the McMansion, a haven of comfort and pleasure and unending safety. High-tech security systems, the best money can buy. Maybe not a gun -- not if you're a fan of Oprah -- but plenty of sensors and alarms, perhaps even an ultra-cool panic room, the kind you could hunker down in for days while the burglars watch your Blu-Ray and drink your Miller Lite.
Innumerable counter-culture authors, artists, and musicians have "raged against the machine" that is American consumerism. Its downright cliche to suggest that excessive security is a bane to spiritual freedom. And in truth, in many ways, the concept is simply not reflected in anything we see in the world. People of abjectly deficient means are statistically more likely to suffer depression (although the causal relationship seems to be a matter of debate). The man who can't take his mind off his growling stomach or freezing hands may actually be less likely to enjoy a divine epiphany or sublime revelation. It's not freedom to always be wanting; in truth, quite the opposite.
I don't know whether those who struggle endlessly against life's rough tides are more "spiritual" than the ones who wallow and finally drown in their own reeking crapulence. I don't know if the ascetic journeys of the paupers and indigents somehow cleanse their souls of earthly attachments, perhaps lifting them up to higher and brighter plains of consciousness. But one thing is certain -- those who are accustomed to rolling with life's ebbs and flows, the inevitable bad times that easily outnumber the good, stand stronger and truer when those roughest waves come 'round.
I've been seeing news stories lately about middle-class people turning to crime. Bank robberies, mostly. According to an ABC news report, everyone from church deacons, to real estate business owners, to elderly grandmothers have turned to robbing banks "just to pay the bills." Some people lost everything in the stock market. Countless others have lost their jobs, and their homes to foreclosure. Some have killed themselves, and at least a few have taken their families with them. As the curtain is being drawn on the American Dream, we're just not interested in sticking around for Act II.
But I'm not ready to kill myself or rob a bank. I want to live no matter if I have a place to sleep or money in my wallet. But it won't be easy. I'm not so foolish as to think otherwise. So I'm trying to learn everything I can. About life, the world, other human beings and myself.
Today, I interviewed a 25 year-old young woman named Alicia. At the age of 9, Alicia ran away from home and came to Portland, OR. She told me that being on her own at 9 "seemed normal." Because she "was already alone" with her parents. Both of her parents were addicts, and as a child she was subjected to physical and sexual abuse. She and her family were incessantly homeless from the day of her birth. It's the only life she has ever known.
Last year, Alicia became pregnant, and was forced to leave the transitional housing she was at because they "weren't designed for families." She was transferred to another shelter called a "wet shelter," which was populated with active drug users. Alicia knew that such an environment might cause a relapse of her addiction, so she went back out onto the streets. She remained there sleeping under a bridge for 4 months while awaiting a new opening in transitional housing (the waiting lists can be very long). Just over a month ago, she gave birth to a daughter. Now, for the first time in her life, she has finally made it into permanent, low-income housing. Without a child, however, she would not have qualified for housing and would still be on the streets.
Several things have struck me in my conversations with Alicia. Firstly, her sobriety shines through clearly (14 months clean as of Wednesday, March 11th). She is lucid, alert, articulate, and composed. She's friendly and smiles easily and often. In fact, her nickname is "Smiley." Because, in her words, she is "always either smiling, or making someone else smile." (Interview may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrAIOG7lP30)
Alicia has never described herself to me as a victim, nor does she seem the slightest bit angry or bitter. Her demeanour is pleasant and gentle. She speaks with great empathy and compassion for others who are homeless, and asks that the general public not view them as "poison." She said, "We're human beings; we have hearts and minds. Just because we're homeless doesn't mean we're not people."
Two days earlier, I interviewed Art Rios, an active homeless advocate who, like Alicia, is a recovering addict (going on 3 years sober), and has finally found permanent housing. Art was homeless in Portland for nearly a decade-and-a-half, and didn't begin the recovery process until a police officer took a human interest in him, after discovering Art shooting heroin in a dumpster. Even though Art is now full-time employed and has a home, he continues his tireless efforts to relieve the plight of Portland's homeless. He's no longer arguing for himself; he's fighting for the countless men, women and children in the city and all across the country who have no voice of their own. (Interview may be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFu9HmLmRWw)
I've also interviewed Micaela, a young mother and wife whose catastrophic health problems have prevented her from working for years. And I've interviewed Ben, a disabled veteran and recovering addict who's been homeless off and on since 1967 (their interviews will be posted in a few days). Later this week, I'll be interviewing Debbie, a disabled homeless woman who suffers from a brain tumor and countless other ailments. And John, a recovering addict with two years sobriety and yet no work or permanent housing prospects.
All share their friendly demeanours and quiet dignity. Worldly insights flow easily from their lips. Their accounts are as riveting as they are heartbreaking. All take responsibility for their lives, and yet aren't ashamed to express their needs. They want to be seen as they are. Human beings worthy of every respect that one affords his neighbor, his friend, his brother, his sister.
What can we learn from Art, Alicia, John, Debbie, Micaela, and Ben? Perhaps that one's assessment of the value of one's life is mostly if not entirely subjective. Very hard times for some are actually above average times for others. And even the worst times don't last forever. Cliches like "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" simply don't do justice to the enduring power and grace of human dignity in the face of prolonged and unimaginable hardship. Their lives are a testimony to the absurdity of self-condemnation. Self-judgment, as well as the judgment of others, is as immature as it is useless. It presumes things that none of us can ever know. The greatest mystery of all is, to what extent do we choose our destinies? To what extent do they choose us?
That void, that awesome everythingness that brave men seek when they climb Mt. Everest. These extraordinary souls, these indefatigable warriors, have looked deep into that void and glimpsed the ultimate truth. That they indeed lost "everything," but they never lost themselves.
Copyright ⓒ 2009 by Michael Goodspeed