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,
Even if he seems the same to you, that’s a stranger to your door.
Go on, ask him what’s he come here for.

Oh my God a monkey can move a man,
Send him to hell and home again
Empty hand in the afternoon, shooting for the moon.

It’s halfway sick and it’s halfway stoned
He’d sure like to kick but he’s too far gone
Winding down with the methadone, he’s all on his own.

Baby, don’t you throw your love away, I hate to seem unkind.
It’s only that I understand the man that the monkey can leave behind.
I used to think he was a friend of mine.

– 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

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  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi daveJon Husband quoted this passage from the Wanderer by Sterling Hayden – Is it not an elegy for the real life?To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… “cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. “I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security.” And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

  2. gbreez says:

    Bankruptcy of purse!!!!!!!!!At least, that is my choice. Sometimes it gets hard to find the “few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter,” yet, I wish I had moved this direction sooner, before most of my life was done. And, I wish I had been prepared with some skill at creating things to barter…for food, heat, and shelter. Teach your children well; teach them practical skills they can use to survive outside this strange, unreal world of today.

  3. David Pratt says:

    A poem comes to mind. I wrote it 20 years ago.PornographicI love the crease the fold the bendand then of course the curve of you.As with all things that I collectyou love those reasons for me too.Not just of flesh, muscle, and cloth,but of that we possessed as well.Of what was made as we were madeas we both came up and then fellinto this world of things brand new.We made our bid for the deep shinethat came jumping as time withdrew,and conquered fears of passing time.We ran so shimmering to this,our place made for us and by us.And here we live upon each kisslips touching lips and little more.Our softness seems no longer soft.It is all hardness now we feel.Refusing visions set aloftwe look to form and form alone.And through this hate our shapes seem real.Deep discontents and subverted hates, buried under form based titiliations and distractions. Those are the challenges.The spiritual need to reconnect to something deeper than “form” is there as our guide.

  4. Marblex says:

    I have not been so moved in a very long time.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Powerful powerful post.All that’s left to do is be the best we can be in relationship with each other … work at seeing and feeling compassionately … which I think is one of the central tenets of Buddhism.I’ve little taste left for consulting, coaching or counselling towards more efficiency or effectiveness in the existing set-ups and arrangements … and no inclination to engage myself in searching for way to do that. I am interested in living as well as I can, having good friends, loving fiercely and without compromise and having compassion … for myself as much as anyone else. My entire life to this point has been about being “successful” … using my talents and energies to bring me “more”, to be a success in the game of life. This is what was instilled in me (and I’m sure many many others), as I was growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and ’70’s.For me it has taken a long time to reconceive “success”, and I’m still working hard on it every day, it feels like.

  6. Jon Strande says:

    Dave, what a great post!!! It starts early, when society defines what success is, as Jon mentioned. But it is the wrong definition and most people are using the wrong yardstick for measuring their life…. From very early on we are told what “success” means, and how to achieve it: big house, big car, lots of money… and getting that stuff takes “hard work”. Well, guess what, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be happy. And that is why people spend billions on therapy, pills, booze, and divorce attornies. Like everything else, there is a natural balance, but too often it seems people are running towards something, yet they don’t know what “it” is.There is a great line in the Tao Te Ching: “Those who know others are wise, those who know themselves are enlightened.” Easier said than done, obviously.For me, it is a journey.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you everyone. May we all, somehow, break our terrible habit and find our way home.

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