The big Mexican has been off medication for quite some time now, living on the street and in the same clothes at least as long as I've lived in the neighborhood, which is about a year. Today I passed him sitting in the shade on the side of a fast food place, shuffling golden twist-off bottle caps from swollen hand to hand like Timon of Athens sifting riches from the sand outside the city wall.
"You want a cigarette, Brother?" I say, stopping just past him on my morning walk.
He nods once.
"Do you need some money?" He stuffs the two cigarettes I give him into one of his filthy socks and glances back up at me. "Do you need some money?" He shakes his head. "Take care, Brother."
I have taken to calling the needy men on the street "Brother." It is my religiosity showing through. Many are, I suspect, drug addicts. The women outside of Walgreens too. "Sister, you gotta kick that shit." (I am not opposed to using vulgarity or the vernacular, although it may at times seem as forced as the parenthetical transitional sentence. To convince is to make a point in the story.)
Empathy is like that, recovered from a habitual misuse of drugs, having lived in rural poverty as a result of that abuse, sleeping with local girls who stash their kids in another room while we go at it, believing the situation temporary as I acquire two college degrees at the same time, privileged by the G.I. Bill. They have kept me awake many nights hence, my nervous system on fire with the memories, battle with demons long-assumed beaten. I feel like an outsider, unable to offer real assistance when what is very real is the fix, and assistance is the means to acquire it; or the voices that, should I stand here for five more seconds, will convince my friend that I am anything but an angel of mercy.
I have a friend, who, although an ordained minister, has left the church and taken his tithes to the street. Ask of him and it is yours. Even though I didn't ask, after a recent tale of temporary financial troubles, he handed me a fifty dollar bill while we ate lunch. The spirit told him to, knowing he would be blessed doubly by his act of generosity/mercy.
I pray for mercy as much as wisdom, understanding and the benefit of others. I have faith that my prayers are answered: proof in my pocket, so to speak; words on a page that rounds-out as a grace-filled thing of beauty; and lastly, hoping a small light has been lit or a light burns brighter as a smile, no matter how fleeting, on the faces of loved ones.
I give thanks and chip away at my own despair.
In Shusaku Endo's novel, Silence, one of the priests, his ministry outlawed, hidies from the officials and despairs at being found out, killed, or worse yet, tortured. He is sick at his fear, thinking personal despair a vanity of self-preservation, the greatest sin of all for the faithful drawn to alleviate the suffering of others. He feels called to put an end to another's despair by bringing the word of our Lord to empty and over-taxed stomachs.
Who then is the greater sinner, the priest or the heathen? It is neither. It is the overlord. Here in the United States it goes by the name Private Interest. Greed.
The funny and sad thing about greed is that it perpetuates despair on all fronts. As clichéd as it sounds, the more one has, the more one wants and will be taken advantage of; while to that same end another aspires or suffers in direct proportion. A two hundred dollar pair of sneakers feeds six people three times a day for a month or is the M.O. in a slaying. A multi-billion dollar merger starves a whole nation or leaves an inner city school population largely illiterate. Psychotic people roam streets until they freeze to death or are bludgeoned for their torn but quilted jacket.
Still, a sense of entitlement pervades, like a perverse mutation of the work ethic. Even in my own way, I am guilty, asking in my prayers that others be blessed, assured that in turn I will be blessed for no other reason than my Lord is both love and mercy unbounded. And perhaps, this is a conceit on my part, comfortable even in the paradox, afforded that perspective whereas others are not. Abjection of the over-informed and privileged, contemplating my complicity as a way to relax after dinner.
One may feel that things have gone so awry, the social programs of the last thirty years so destructive and self-defeating, bringing out the worse in everybody, that there is no hope for stability save everyone retire to their respective corners: the haves to the burbs and other semi-insulated residential areas; the have-nots left to die or feed upon each other before rot sets in. This will not be the case. Everyone will suffer for the hunger will be so great, the madness pervasive.
What solutions can I propose? I have none. That's what I want to talk to you about. Suffer my neighbor and me, and we shall honor you as well. Maybe we can come up with something together.