“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
– Gospel of Matthew 22:39
Photo Courtesy of Lifehack.org
One of the more depressing side effects of living in an urban environment is a sort of desensitization to your environment and the people in it. In reaction to this overwhelming stimulus, we often identify and relate to other human beings with the same sort of indifference as we do the buildings that surround them, or in the case of certain sects of the population, a sort of annoyed discomfort. How many of us have walked or driven past a homeless man or woman begging for money and averted our eyes in attempts to not get their attention. How many times have we walked past homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk and secretly wished they weren’t there.
Amidst all of the talk about “privilege” and “equality” in the socio-political sphere, discussion of the homeless epidemic in America that crosses all ages, races and ethnicities (including white people), seems to be almost non-existent. If anything, it is reduced to a fundamentally utilitarian issue, as it has been here in the city of Portland. Here, we see the city looking to put “these people” somewhere out of the way. That’s really what it boils down to. The government isn’t looking to address any of the fundamental issues of homelessness because at the end of the day, it can’t. The homelessness epidemic won’t be solved by putting people away somewhere, just like drug and alcohol addiction won’t be solved by locking people up in prison- and the two are most certainly linked. This is not to say that ALL homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts, but absolute despair will seek relief, and for many, there is no other anecdote in sight.
Of course, beggars have always been a part of human urban society for most of recorded history, but things have changed dramatically in the last century, especially in the western urbanized/industrialized nations. This coincided with the industrial revolution and the development of the urban megacities that we see today. In the 19th century, farmers living in rural areas were moved en masse into the industrial centers to work in factories. With that alcohol use among these populations skyrocketed. Similar occurrences happened after the urban factories began to shut down in the latter part of the 20th century. I have seen firsthand the effects of a former “mill town” turning into a meth/heroin town.
It was long thought that the addiction epidemics among the increasingly urbanized populations were due to the drugs themselves. A study where one rat in a cage was given a bottle of regular water and a bottle of water laced with cocaine was used to support this thesis. In the study, the rat in the cage chose the cocaine water to excess until it overdosed itself. The study was “conclusive” drugs are the cause of addiction and the resulting destruction of life that happens as a result. However, in the 1970s, Professor Bruce Alexander looked into this study and redid it with a different approach. He noticed that the rat in the cage was just a solitary rat surrounded by cold steel bars. So he decided to build a “rat city” for his experiment, with bright colors, obstacles and tunnels for activity, plenty of cheese, and a group of rats that could commune and procreate with one another as opposed to just one rat living in isolation. The result? The cocaine water was barely touched by any of the rats.
The effect of life in the “concrete jungle” created a sense of isolation and despair among those who were forced to move there for various reasons. Cut off from the natural world and organic community, other things filled the void. Then when the factories that built these cities in the first place were shipped elsewhere, any sense of fulfillment and purpose that had developed as the people adapted to this sort of living, was gone, and in its place was more despair and seemingly even less hope.
Baltimore is an example of this– a city that seems to have been lost to hopeless despair and the crime-ridden chaos that comes to fill the vacuum. A little less than a year ago, that city was in flames. We all remember the riots and fires that occurred last year. Likewise, many are aware of the assaults, murders, rapes and various other types of crime that continues to occur in that city. The popular diagnosis is that this “acting out” was/is because of the actions of white police. But the truth is that what has happened and what has continued to happen in Baltimore isn’t about the police. It isn’t about drugs. It isn’t even about the drug war (although it plays a supporting role). It isn’t even about an unruly subset of the population or the mass-media promotion of “crime culture“(although it also plays a supporting role). It is about people living in a completely unnatural environment where they are cut off from nature and true community. It is about the urban landscape creating a place where one feels alone amongst a population of thousands; a place where you feel like little more than a living ghost, who desperately reaches for that immediate gratification, (be it drugs, booze, sex or violence) because it is the only thing that makes you feel alive.
But amidst the bitter resentment and hopeless despair that comes from living in such a cold, and inhospitable environment, we see an image like this:
A Baltimore police officer named Eric Gaines took this photo, and then shared it on social media. What is happening here? Officer Gaines explains what he saw:
“I watched as this young kid was walking pass, stopped and walked over to this sleeping homeless man; touched him and began praying over him…”
Gaines believed the young man, probably around 15 or 16 to have been internally prompted to do what he did as he “almost missed his bus while he was praying for the guy, which confirmed that he did it for no other reason than to pray for him.”
The photo has gone viral, which has delighted Gaines who states with great enthusiasm:
“This was an amazing sight! I pray this kid becomes a leader amongst his peers, and continues on this path!! Not all Baltimore youth are lost!!”
Officer Gaines went on to say that “people have preconceived notion of young men… Not all are lost. Some are doing wonderful things in the neighborhood and community and it’s not getting the same publicity in the media.” (And the same could be said of police officers as well)
This is a beautiful moment frozen in time. What we have here is the equivalent of the beautiful flower that grows in the middle of a landfill. It shows us how despite being seemingly imprisoned in a desolate world of hopeless isolation and despair, Light, Life and Love still finds a way. A moment of tenderness in a harsh concrete prison cell of modern “Saṃsāra”, where one young man extended himself in an act of service to another human being.
The most immediate cure for the diseases of isolation and loneliness is not imprisonment or even “sobriety”; it is fellowship and community; it is connection. Sometimes all it takes a stranger who seems to come out of nowhere to show just one small act of compassion to turn someone’s life around. All the government legislation, mandates and programs in the world will never be able to fill the role of a single caring individual who acts out of the motivation of his or her own heart and nothing more (or less), regardless of how “small” this action may seem on the surface.
Jesus said “Man cannot live on bread alone”, and I dare say this is, at least in part, what he was referring to. This idea that even more than physical sustenance, we need the touch and compassion of another human being in order to survive. The truth of this is so palpable for me and has proven so true for me in my own life I cannot even begin to fully articulate. I know the immense pain of isolation and living in separation from others and the desire to numb yourself from that. Conversely, I know the joy and fulfillment of connection and fellowship, and how that can change your life.
Perhaps one day, we will opt for a new way of living and being in the world; a way that allows us to not only survive, but thrive. Perhaps we will one day build a civilization that is aligned with the Laws of Nature and Creation- a civilization that truly nurtures us and the world around us; a civilization at harmony with the essence of our being. Perhaps one day we will build this civilization, but when we do, it won’t come as a result of government or other cold and impersonal mechanisms; it will come from the warmth of our hearts and through the use of our own free will to take meaningful actions in our own lives towards others. It all begins by reaching out to a fellow in need and doing something, even if it’s no more than lending a listening ear or a compassionate prayer.
In closing, for those who feel moved to get involved and make a difference here in the Portland area, two great places to give or better yet, volunteer are The Portland Rescue Mission and Operation Nightwatch, whom I have worked with in the past. If you aren’t local to Portland, I strongly urge you to get involved in your own community. It is in your own local area where you can actually touch someone in the sort of way that allows for the true connectedness that we are so desperately lacking in our modern world of isolation.
Jesus said to “love thy neighbor“. A neighbor is someone who lives in close physical proximity to someone else, not an unknown person in a far off land. There is so much focus on helping people in the most remote parts of the world, when what is really needed is for us extend ourselves locally and help our fellow brothers and sisters who live right here alongside of us; who share living space with us; because it is in the close and intimate where we truly have the greatest ability to be of service to others.
Namaste and God Bless.