When I visit downtown Toronto I often encounter homeless people. I usually give them something, even though I am constantly told the same homeless-hostile stories: That they’re actually well-off, just begging because it’s easier than working; That they’ll blow it all on alcohol or drugs; That I’m encouraging them to stay on the streets instead of forcing them into shelters and treatment facilities where they’ll be better off. Many of the homeless I see appear to be in a state of stupor, whether from intoxication, mental confusion or just numbness I do not know. But more and more when I see them I think:
The homeless and addicted are a perfect metaphor for all of us living in modern civilization.
We, the civilized masses, are lost, adrift, imprisoned. We do not know where we belong. We sense somehow that this life we are living is alien, wrong, not the way it should be. We are disconnected, confused, struggling. And we are addicted to consumption and debt and unable, even unwilling, to break these addictions. It is the only life we know. We cannot imagine living in a place that we know in our bones is home. We cannot imagine living a life where we have everything we need, take nothing more than what we need, and owe nothing to anyone. We are homeless and addicted, desperate to find a home that makes sense to us and to overcome our addictions and yet at the same time defiant, unwilling to accept the ‘home’ that others try to impose on us ‘for our own good’ or to break the addictions that give us such comfort, our only moments of joy and freedom.
Ricky’s been kicking the gong*, lickety split didn’t take too long
A junkie’s sick, a monkey’s strong, that’s what’s wrong.
Well, I guess he’s been messing around downtown
So sad to see the man losing ground
Winding down behind closed doors, on all fours.
Mama, don’t you call him by name, he can’t hear you anymore,
Oh my God a monkey can move a man,
It’s halfway sick and it’s halfway stoned
Baby, don’t you throw your love away, I hate to seem unkind.
– James Taylor, Junkie’s Lament
(*A very old expression that means using heroin)
Civilization is our Pusher. It’s The Man who keeps us hooked on consumption and debt, The Man who holds the key to our prison and gives us our illusory rush of elation when we buy and use His addictive product. The Man who seduces us back even when we have decided that life in His prison is insane, self-abusive, worse than death. The monkey is our addiction, without which we cannot live. And we wander the streets of civilization’s artificial world in a daze, never really home, wondering what is missing, why we feel so lost. Civilization is our ghetto, a whole world of six billion homeless people, setting fires on every corner for warmth, ganging up and stealing everything we can get our hands on to pawn for our fixes, breeding babies already drug-addicted at birth.
So the next time you see a homeless person, or an addict, don’t be frightened, angry, or filled with pathos. You are looking in the mirror. It is we who are homeless, and addicted. What will it take before we break the habit, walk away from The Man, and find our way home?
How can we break the habit when all of us are addicts, even The Man? When we have all forgotten what it’s like to live without the monkey? When we have all become the hollow, empty, desperate shadows of men that the monkey leaves behind?
When I become too theoretical, when I ask with too much vehemence why people work jobs they hate, why so many earn their living by deforesting, or mining, or working other destructive jobs, my friend reminds me: “Sixty days”, he says. “Thatís how long it takes before people in the civilized world begin to die of starvation. Dave canít quit his job because in sixty days his children will die. That’s the primary reason most of us do not rebel. We have too much to lose”. Ours is a politics, economics and religion of occupation, not of inhabitation, and as such the methods by which we are formed and governed have no legitimacy save that sprouting from the end of a cannon, from a can of pepper spray, from the rapist’s penis, from the travesty of modern education, from the instilled dread of a distant hell and the false promise of a future techtopia, from the chains that bind children to beds and looms and from the everyday fear of starvation — as well as an internalized notion of what constitutes social success or failure — that binds us to wage slavery. The responsibility for holding destructive institutions, systems and culture accountable falls on each of us. We are the governors of this prison as well as the governed…
– Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words
There’s no methadone for the stuff we’re hooked on. And no one left to administer it even if there were.
Image of homelessness from the Italian blog Moving & Learning