Different Strokes

This is one of a series of pieces written on request of Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of the social justice newspaper, Street Spirit.  

Our society seems to be obsessed with putting people into boxes. Rather than take the time to actually get to know an individual for who they are uniquely, we like to make snap judgments about them according to their appearance. For example, if a man is seen flying a sign on a sidewalk, we think: “That guy’s a lazy bum.”

But what if that man is not a lazy bum? What if he’s someone who, for one reason or another, needs to fly a sign on that particular day, in order to raise money quickly for some certain necessity that he lacks? For all we know, he could be raising money for transportation to a distant town where someone has offered him a job. In that event, what would make him a “lazy bum?”

Pin by Margie Manifold on Science - Sociology & Cultural Practices
Erving Goffman

Sociologist Erving Goffman refers to this phenomenon as “social stigma.” He defines social stigma as the extreme disapproval of (or discontent with) a person or group on socially characteristic grounds that are perceived, and serve to distinguish them, from other members of a society.”

Many people are socially stigmatized in this fashion. A cop might be stigmatized, thought to be brutal or inhumane, only because some cops are inhumane. Naturally, those are the cops who attract the public eye. But we’ve all met good cops, haven’t we? When I was homeless, I encountered cops who treated me more humanely than some of the social workers whose job it was to help me.

Religious people are also often stigmatized. Some people think that just because I identify as a Christian, it means that I must be sexist, anti-gay, and a proselytizing Bible-thumper, ready to cram my theology down their throats. But anyone who actually takes the time to get to know me will readily tell you that I am none of those things.

In my personal experience, I have never been stigmatized more than when I was a homeless person. I was lumped into the same box as virtually every one of my fellow homeless people. And when solutions were offered to end my homelessness, I found that there was an alarming “one size fits all” approach. My personal story, if even listened to, was disregarded completely.

You’re homeless?” one would say. “Here’s what you do. I’ve got a lead on a live-in drug rehabilitation program.”

Now, there are a number of flaws with that kind of reasoning. First of all, it presupposes that homelessness and drug addiction are synonymous. This is folly. Many homeless people have never used illegal drugs at all. On the other hand, many people who live indoors are severely addicted to all kinds of drugs. They just don’t let anyone see it.

Secondly, suppose a person is a drug addict. Is a “live-in drug rehabilitation program” necessarily the solution for them? There are twelve-step programs, sober living environments, a program at Kaiser called LifeRing, and a program called Rational Recovery. Similarly, if one is homeless, one might be directed toward a board-and-care home, a live-in psychiatric facility, a halfway house, or transitional housing. And those options will work for many people.

I spoke with a formerly homeless woman who enrolled in transitional housing and spent seven months in a group facility, giving them a percentage of her disability check every month. At the end of the seven months, she had enough money to pay the first and last months rent and security deposit on a studio apartment. She seemed quite content with her situation the last time I saw her.

I myself received a call from someone at the Berkeley Food and Housing Administration shortly after I had left Berkeley for another State. It turned out that my name had come up on a list of senior housing options, and they were willing to offer me my own one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt. While that might sound wonderful, it would also have kept me in a part of the world where I had developed far more detrimental associations than beneficial ones. Although I was tempted to drop everything and move back to the East Bay for sentimental reasons, I knew deep down that it would be a backward move.

I have had two places of my own since I left Berkeley. The first was reached by googling keywords such as “college town,” “small town,” “affordable rent.” Those and other keywords eventually pointed me toward a place of my liking. But if another homeless person were to start googling keywords, their keywords might not be something along the lines of “big city,” “multicultural,” “low unemployment rate.” One size does not fit all.

Until we, as a society, slow ourselves down enough, and open ourselves up enough, to listen to the plethora of unique stories that homeless people generally tell truthfully, we will not come close to solving the “homeless problem.” In my case, the first person to listen to my story was a retired music teacher. He knew I was truthful because he recognized a fellow music teacher when he saw one. For another person seeking to escape the throes of homelessness, the first person to listen to their story might be a construction worker or a restaurant owner.

So, while transitional housing programs and halfway houses have their place, a true solution to the homeless predicament will never be reached until we recognize that the homeless person is an individual, endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no more and no less than anyone else on the planet. As long as the wall of division that separates a “person” from a “homeless person” still stands, no lasting solution will be attained. But once that wall is broken down, the solution will be plain to see.

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Tuesday Tuneup 46

Q. What’s really bugging you this morning?

A. Not much.  Not much at all.

Q. Anything bugging you just a little bit?

A. Well, if you must ask, I suppose there are a couple things.

Q. Like what?

A. We didn’t get a very good turnout at the second round of auditions last night.

Q. Why not?

A. Probably because we haven’t advertised very well.  This all came up rather suddenly.

Q. What else is bugging you?

A. Well, my dyslexia is very inconvenient.   I’m doing a very important task that involves two separate computers, and saving files in two separate ways on each computer.  It’s sort of like dyslexia upon dyslexia.  These kinds of tasks take me five times as long to accomplish as the normal human being even if only one dyslexic factor is involved.  Now it’s taking twenty-five times as long.  It can be discouraging.   But you know what’s bugging me the most?

Q. What?

A. The fact that I even am expected to discuss what’s bugging me this morning, rather than what I’m really happy about.

Q. What are you really happy about?

A. My daughter!!

The Questioner is silent.   

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Gratitude List 1138

This week’s gratitude list is fetched from Tuesday, six days ago, April 16th.

1. Finally waking up.

2. Slept a solid six hours from 11pm to 5am.

3. On #1, in this case, the doppio is what it took.  I must have slept very deeply, because I honestly wasn’t fully alert till 4 1/2 hours after awakening. This is a good thing — I’m likely to be energetic and focused throughout the day ahead.

4. Ran into Jim the Janitor who bought me breakfast, and had a wonderful conversation with him at the Courtyard.

5. Putting out fires already — the leading role issue, the audition form issue — but at least there are fires to be put out. For a long time, everything was a deluge, and nothing ever caught afire.

6. This is the perfect day for Proverbs 16. It’s my favorite chapter in all of the Proverbs of Solomon.  In fact, 16:1 has already bombarded me.

7. As of yesterday. I can see the light at the end of the current tunnel. I don’t feel “submerged” in the work anymore. I feel on top of it, like I can breathe again, and it’s all good.

8. It feels as sad as it does good, but a friend I made at the Center has told me that I am the only true friend that she has right now, and the only person in her life whom she feels she can completely trust.

9. Heard from Kent, and from Holly. Both sounded upbeat & positive. Just had a lengthy convo with Kent (post-doppio) and am happy for our longstanding, mostly mutually beneficial friendship.

10. All systems go. Excelsior.

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The Death of Death

I wasn’t sure what to offer you for Easter Sunday, when a story popped into my head.  It was something that happened way back in the 70’s, when I was hanging out in an all-night restaurant.

A man entered.  He seemed to have a mental health condition.  He took a napkin and a pen, and drew the famous equation:E Equals Mc Squared Calculator | Komseq
“You know what that means?” he asked, smiling.

I looked up from my seventh cup of coffee.   “Energy equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

“Ha!” he said.  “He knows!  But that’s only half of it.  It actually is about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

“How do you figure that?” I asked.

“The only constant in the Universe, according to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is the speed of light.  The only constant in corporeal life is death.   The speed of light squared is the speed of light times the speed of light.  Death squared is death times death.  In multiplication, the word “of” is often used as a multiplier.   Therefore, we are dealing with the death of death.

“Matter corresponds to the corporeal body.   So, matter, times the death of death, equals what?  Energy.  In other words, everlasting life.

“Are you a Christian?”

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“You will be,” he said mysteriously, and walked out of the restaurant.

An interesting word of prophecy, as it were – for I eventually did become a Christian (though possibly not as a result of his bizarre analogy.)  I could tell you how I became a Christian, in the Spring of 1983, but that would be a theme for a much longer, larger post.

For today, I only want to say that I went running along a strange and merry trail, where no other runners were.   A lone rabbit eased up towards me, on the other side of the creek, and surpassed me at amazing velocity.

“Aha!” I proclaimed.  “There’s the Easter Bunny!”

He is risen! He is risen indeed.

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Auditions Tonight

Auditions for Eden in Babylon begin tonight at 7pm at the Lionel Hampton School of Music.   There will be further auditions Monday at 7pm, with callbacks Tuesday at 7pm, at Moscow First Presbyterian Church.

I have waited seven years for this moment.  If you know what this means to me — or better yet, to the world — please feel free to comment with the words “Break a Leg.”

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Tuesday Tuneup 45

Oh well  —  I’ve dragged the ‘game’ out for long enough now to only make it boring if I don’t just up-and-choose a ‘winner.’   And the winner is Lynne Fisher, for the simple reason that her question arouses or incites the most interesting possibilities — that is, for me personally, since after all, I *am* the Answerer. 

So thank you to everybody who participated, which I believe is five of you, if I counted right.   You certainly have raised some very interesting questions!   And now, without further ado, I will do my best to answer the chosen one.

Q. What’s really bugging you this morning?

A. I have a die-hard internal conflict that needs to be resolved.

Q. What conflict is that?

A. It’s hard to describe.

Q. How do you know?

A. I already tried.  I called my best friend and tried it to describe it to her.  And not even she, in her ultra-high intelligence and exceedingly advanced listening skills, was able to understand it.

Q. Wow — maybe, try again?

A. Okay here goes.

The Answerer takes a breath.

A. For a guy who feels called to convey an important theme for humanity – you know, as an Artist, as a spiritual human being, as a Man   — I sure have a lot of lousy inner thoughts that seem to be — well, they’re below me.

Q. What kinds of thoughts?

A. Thoughts of randomly calling people who have disrespected me, and leaving nasty messages on their voicemails – like say, during the middle of the night, when I know they won’t answer, but will pick up the messages when they get to work in the morning.Th

Q. Do you . . . ever actually make any of these “random” phone calls?

A. No I do not.

Q. Then why do you still think of doing so?

A. That’s a good question.

Q. Well – thank you – but – why would you want to do something like that?   What purpose would it serve?

A. It would jar them.  It would jolt them out of their inane complacency.  It would shake them up, and get them to realize that they can’t quite get rid of me as easily as they thought they could! It would let them know that I’m still there with them — still hovering over them — ready to plague them, to torment them, for all the remaining days of their pitiful, hellbound lives — and even for an eternity in hell thereafter, if it were possible.

Q. And it is not possible?

A. No it is not.  For between the two of us there is a great gulf fixed — kinda like Jesus in Luke 16, the parable about the rich guy down in hell and the poor man up in heaven, and all that.

Q. So you will be in heaven?

A. Yes.

Q. And they will be in hell?

A. Well, I certainly hope not!  But if they are, there’s no way I can reach them any longer.

Q. And if they aren’t?

A. Then we’re all up in heaven, and it’s all good.  Join the party!

Q. Your theology amuses me.

A. Only questions, please.

Q. All right, then here’s a question for you.  Is it so important for you to shake these guys up, that you would risk your entire eternal security in heaven by heading down to hell with them, just to keep nagging at them?

A. Well, now that you put it that way — no, I don’t suppose so — no.

Q. Then why don’t you just give it up?   Can you really change these guys?

A. OMG you’re starting to sound like a pop psychologist!   But no, I cannot change them.

Q. So why don’t you just turn your attention to something more positive, useful, peaceful, beautiful —

A. Well, that’s what I do already!  I do it every damn morning, if you want the God-honest truth.

DEUS transforma! « Geração Eleita
“Deus Transformed” by Geração Eleita

Q. I’m not sure I do want the “God-honest truth,” but that’s just an agnostic aside. 

A. Understood.

Q. My question is why do you have to go through a process every single morning of overcoming all this insane hatred and vitriol, before you can get to the place where you’re bringing about peace and joy and love and kindness and all of the virtues you truly value?

A. Because if it weren’t for all the hatred and vitriol, I would have no enemy to overcome, there would be no fight, the battle would be over, and I would accomplish nothing.  

Q. In other words, you need an enemy in order to win the war?

A. You got it.   This is war, man.   This is Art.   It’s the real thing.   I’m not just fooling around here.   This is serious business.   

Q. How long have you been fighting this war?

A. Goes back to early childhood.  Between five and seven, I think, when I found out about — about —

Q. About what?

A. Isn’t there somewhere else you have to be this morning?

Q. You tire of my questions?

A. Would Socrates have tired of a gadfly?  Of course not.  It’s just that we’re about up a whole new Pandora’s Box here, and I myself would frankly like to get a bite to eat before setting about the day . . . of creating . . . things that are beautiful . . . and peaceful . . . and harmonious . . .  pretty . . . artistic . . . aesthetic . . .

Q. Out with it!!  What was it that you learned when you were a child?!   What caused you to begin this lifelong war?

A. You know the answer to that.  And you also know who is the enemy.

The Questioner is silent.  

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A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Gratitude List 1137

1. Slept really well, from some unknown early time (like around 7pm) till 3:30am. I’m sure I got at least 8 hours of decent sleep, with dreams.

2. My apartment may be a mess, but at least it’s an apartment, and I’ve not lost it to homelessness.

3. Broke again on the 15th as usual, but that’s the price you have to pay for peace of mind in my world.   Not to mention, I’m in good company these days, along with 99% of the other people I know.

4. I’ve made it to 66 years of age without a serious physical ailment or injury.

5. I read this article (for whatever it’s worth) and noticed that reading seems to be “no problem” these days. Like with listening to the sermon yesterday, my head seems to be getting clear of all this extraneous “head-shit” that has always stood in the way of my reading & listening comprehension. This has to be due to the medication — though it’s not without its side effects.

6. I feel like I have a little more love in my heart than usual this morning.

7. Daily talks with with my daughter have been encouraging. Very encouraging, in fact!

8. Good talk with Danielle right now — lots of food for thought.

9. Heard from Rob E. that the Song Circle will be resuming this Thursday.   That could be a nice day, one day after the auditions.   Also, I get to meet with a theology professor to discuss Genesis Three and maybe clear some of the scarier air.   Good things are definitely coming my way.   

10. Well – I guess we’ll see what this all looks like later. And remember: God is in control.

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A little bit goes a long, long way.