Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go on a tour of many of the homeless and emergency shelters, and detox-centers in Edmonton's inner city. As I've mentioned before, I work in a jail and the mentally ill people I work with there utilize the services of these places quite frequently when they are out in the community. It was good to see these places for myself, to know where they are and get to know a bit how they operate so I'm in a better position to understand my inmate clients' reality. The person leading the tour made a telling comment at one point in the afternoon: "being homeless is a full time job."
I found out that while there are quite a few places to get food in our city, there are hardly any places to sleep if you don't have a home of your own. (In the winter, this can be a big problem here, since it gets down to -30C regularly at night.) You have to get in line early to be sure to get a mat on the floor for the night, in a room of 65-70 or more other people on their mats for the night. Then get in line again for breakfast a few blocks away before it's all gone, and put your name on the list to use the washer or dryer or telephone, which may sometimes actually work. Cart around your few belongings and try to stay out of the way of the aggressive drug dealers or gang members who might 'roll' you for fun, or for your meds or workboots, or just because they can. Pick some bottles to get some cash, maybe apply at a temporary labor agency but be turned down because you don't have any work boots, and no place for them to call you to tell you had the job, even if you did have work boots. Go back to the public health clinic to pick up your psych meds. All of this before lining up early for dinner again, and wolfing it down so you can get in line for a sleeping mat. All day long, the realities of where you are going to sleep and eat are staring you in the face, along with the realities of how to ensure personal safety and how to make some kind of legit money.
I contrast this with the surreal nature of what I've been hearing and seeing in the media, more so lately. Large investment banks whose avaricious practices have caught up with them, now want taxpayers to fund their greed (and apparently their wish has been granted, thanks to another round of fear mongering). Citizens' money worked for and saved over decades is sucked into the abyss of failing banks. Rather than talking about things that matter, our politicians try to out-insult each other so they can become our new 'leaders.' The effects of melamine-tainted food products on Chinese babies are kept under wraps so the Olympics can go off without a hitch. Amateur and professional sporting events are 'fixed' so you can't even be sure that when your team wins, they actually won. Everything is artificial or contrived, if not a boldfaced lie. Do we live in a democratic society anymore, or is it mostly fascist now?
Maybe this is what an existential crisis feels like? When I sit and listen to the news I mostly just gape and shake my head, wondering what really exists, and what is just 'impression management' and 'spin.' Maybe the movie, The Matrix, wasn't so fictional after all? Who can even tell? What does a person hang on to while the house of cards falls?
I imagine that the homeless people I saw yesterday would tell me bluntly that my 'existential crisis' is a luxury they can't afford. They would deride me for ever having thought the house of cards was real in the first place, and shake me out of my foggy delusions. Then, they would get back down to the business of dealing in the everyday realities of finding shelter, food and a measure of safety in their community. In some ways, the mentally ill people I work with are less deluded and more practical than society at large. I'm thankful for the opportunity to learn from them, and thankful for the reality check. It's time to buckle down and get to work.
Reading through the Tao Te Ching today, I notice this chapter, which seems fitting given the news of the 'bailout' in the US announced this morning:
If I have a little knowledge
Walking on the great Tao
I fear only to deviate from it
The great Tao is broad and plain
But people like the side paths
The courts are corrupt
The fields are barren
The warehouses are empty
Officials wear fineries
Carry sharp swords
Fill up on drinks and food
Acquire excessive wealth
This is called robbery
It is not the Tao!