What is it like to be helpless... to beg... to be homeless? If we look honestly at our lives, we recognize that the answer to this question is always right in front of us, no matter how much we’d prefer to think otherwise. I think that we are all helpless, all the time. We are all begging, all the time. We are all homeless, all the time. Put another way, there are very few things that truly matter in life... and we don’t control any of those things. Instead, we live at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves, completely exposed even as we pretend to have it all neatly contained, under control.
The inescapable reality of my own helplessness is rolling around in my head in the wake of two very different episodes of exposure, of deprivation. The first episode was my three days and nights living on the streets of New York, closely followed by two weeks during which I was confined to an apartment while recovering from surgery. These very different experiences, far from existing separately in parallel universes, overlapped and echoed one another in unexpected ways.
Life on the streets without money or a dwelling to go to means utter dependency. You depend on the missions and soup kitchens for meals... on the rare bits of change or the rarer glances given by strangers for little comforts...on the cops to have better things to do than hassle you... on the weather to be warm and dry and the garbage trucks to be quick about their work so you can sleep a little. Life on the streets also means freedom because most of the time you have no illusion that there’s anything to be gained or lost. You just exist.
Being bedridden without the ability to go out means utter dependency. You depend on others to ask how you’re doing and to inquire if you need anything... to buy your food and, sometimes, to cook it for you. You depend on a body that seems out of control, wracked with pain and weakness, to somehow claw its way back to the surface and liberate you from isolation and incapacity. You depend on your mind to grow along the surface of your pain like a vine splashing color on a building in the autumn sun. You just exist.
Just existing has never been my specialty. I find direct experience scary and hard to process, preferring instead to dress up my experience in big, shiny words. I use words to create concepts and abstractions that dull the pain of reality and that also tend to impress other people, keeping them at a safe and manageable distance. It naturally follows, then, that being dependent on other people has never been my specialty either. I’m very attached to the idea that I can do everything for myself, never relying on anyone for anything if I can help it. Relying on others is difficult for me because of the uncertainty that goes along with that reliance. This uncertainty comes out of my expectations of others, and the painful probability that my expectations will be unfulfilled. By dropping my expectations I don’t have to rely on others... I can simply be dependent upon them. This is a critical distinction: I am dependent upon others, but I do not rely upon them. In this completely dependent and perpetually uncertain state, any outcome is possible and any outcome is the right outcome.
When I just existed, either on the streets or after surgery, I depended completely on others. Could depending completely on others while they depend completely on me be one way – the way – to define life itself?
There was something intoxicating about standing on a sidewalk, shaking a cup in one hand and playing a harmonica with the other, asking passersby for spare change. Begging openly, instead of covertly like I usually do, felt exhilarating. Then, too, there was the perverse pleasure of inviting perfect strangers to confront their imperfect feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disdain and, occasionally, pity. These dark sentiments, so unwelcome and yet so necessary, help to explain why the homeless are such outcasts in our society: They force all of us to feel something, in public. When I begged, I wasn’t embarrassed in the least: I felt unbound, exultant, even a little superior, making snide comments as people tried to slink by without a glance of acknowledgement.
Dependency after surgery was much harder for me than dependency on the streets. It was harder to admit to my friends and acquaintances that I needed help than it was to shake a begging bowl anonymously on Houston Street. The truth of my powerlessness hit closer to home after surgery because it wasn’t so easily contained or managed as my brush with homelessness had been. Retreating to bed, barely able to move, I wasn’t playing a role or chasing the essence of someone else’s daily experience. I was wrestling with the very real limits of my body and the constant pain of my wounds.
It was easier for me to beg when the choice to beg was mine alone and, perversely, when the chances of success were slim to none. I chose to be homeless, for a predetermined time frame and under controlled conditions. But I didn’t choose to be a sick person, and asking for the help I really needed after surgery – and had reason to expect might be forthcoming – was of an entirely different order. Begging on the streets felt empowering; begging in private felt weak and pathetic, even. The difference was that the veneer of choice offered me a comforting illusion of control, but when I didn’t have a choice even that illusion was gone. And that was frightening.
Convalescing from surgery, I often wondered what would have become of me if I didn’t have an apartment to stay in after leaving the hospital. What happens to the homeless person who gets an operation that requires a long, painful recovery? In several notorious cases uncovered recently in Los Angeles, hospitals stuck homeless people in vans and dumped them on downtown streets near rescue missions without any concern for their welfare. I doubt that those tactics are confined to Los Angeles, and if I didn’t have a place to stay after my operation it might very well have happened to me. In this narrow sense I am not homeless – I do have a private space that I can access on demand. But when I start to think of that space as anything more than a door to close and a bed to lie upon, when I imbue it with an emotional resonance beyond its practical (and very temporary) function, I know I’m deluding myself.
What is a home? It is a delusion that helps people imagine that they have control over their lives. It is a place where people imagine they have a separate world, their most private world, where they can avoid the things and people they want to avoid. By definition, these imaginings are accompanied by the idea that people can separate themselves from one another, and especially from untouchables like the homeless. Homeless people do not have any such imaginary place to which they can go. They are exposed – all the time – to the real world and its most insistent phenomena. No experience is off limits in the broad, exhausting space they inhabit.
What is a home? Trees and animals don’t have homes... they just live somewhere, they just exist. The world is their home, though they usually inhabit a definable range or part of the world where conditions favor their survival and reproduction. Humans are the only creatures that can control their environment to such an extent that their range covers the globe, and beyond. Humans are also the only creatures that own things and maintain a notion of property. We are told that what makes us human is that we have self-awareness and can think and act out of that self-awareness. But with so much of the thinking and acting done by people directed toward the acquisition and protection of property, it often seems like property is what truly makes us human. And if property makes a human what he or she is, what does that say about someone who has little to no property, or little to no interest in obtaining it?
In the United States, we seem to live in a world of ever-proliferating choice and specificity. We ponder, make and “outgrow” our various choices, and this is how we supposedly express our identities and maintain control of our lives. Everything is a product, and products form the basis of what marketers and the media incessantly tell us we must have... a lifestyle. We cannot simply live, or live simply. Instead we must style ourselves as unique individuals endowed with attractive and differentiated characteristics that we express by purchasing and displaying products. In this consumption-centric culture, people also tend to view one another as products that are chosen or rejected based on their perceived utility.
By this warped standard the homeless and the very sick would seem to be nobodies, because buying products isn’t on their radar screen. In a society burdened by too many choices, the very poor and the very sick have few choices, which is the key to their inherent freedom and also why they frighten other people. Homelessness and sickness could never be called lifestyles or marketed as such. Instead, they give rise to deeply human states of need, longing, isolation, anger and sadness tinged with the warmth of human connections, sought and unsought. Pain is not, and never will be, a product; rather, it is the antidote to all products, the remedy for and the end of all illusory choices.
Let me spice these abstractions by now being honest enough to admit the obvious: that I’ve made, and will make, plenty of illusory choices. Let me confess that I am highly attached to my apartment and the things it contains, things I have carefully purchased, found or made and that I display with fastidious care. Let me say clearly that I am complicit in this hugely dysfunctional system that I also criticize. In this sense I am very impure, which is a perfect expression of my humanity, analogous to my pretending to be independent despite my obvious helplessness and need. My impurity perfects my criticism of myself, and this criticism may well be my only hope.
When I lived with my dependency both on and off the streets, when I fully experienced it, the physical sensation was one of exhaustion. Pain and need are exhausting, whether they arise from an endless night huddled on cardboard in a piss-perfumed alley or an endless night spent in a narcotic haze, unable even to writhe properly. On the streets I rarely slept, and never rested; recovering from surgery, sleeping was about all I could look forward to. In both cases I felt completely wrung out from the cumulative weight of my suffering. And that suffering included the keen awareness that there were many people suffering far more than I was at the time. My mind couldn’t simply hold my feelings – it needed context to process my experience safely through ideas, concepts and abstractions. This text is a perfect example of that same need, and yet another manifestation of my own suffering.
My recent experiences have reminded me that I don’t control anything important and that I really am quite helpless, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. Superficially examined, such thoughts might seem horribly negative and self-defeating. But reality is neither positive nor negative, while the denial of reality that is practiced on such a massive scale by our society is far more self-defeating than a cold, hard look at the facts. Embracing my reality, I see that I am always vulnerable and recognize this vulnerability as a great asset. It is an asset because to be truly vulnerable is to extinguish all fear. By embracing our own vulnerability instead of denying it, by being who and what we really are, we actually become fear and, as Krishnamurti says, fear comes totally to an end. What could be more liberating than the end of all fear? What could be more wonderful than always being at home?