Look At Your Labels

523. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The first time I stepped over a person sleeping on the street I was horrified. I grew up in the burbs; if someone was collapsed on the street it meant they needed help. It was early in the morning, my first day in San Francisco. I was 22 years old. I rushed to the man laying on the cement and my friend Roger grabbed my arm, “Keep walking,’ he said, “There’s nothing you can do.” I stepped over the man and kept walking. It was unnatural. I didn’t believe that there was nothing to be done. And, I kept walking. Roger was quick to point out the people asleep in doorways, on benches, beneath cardboard,…; once my eyes were opened I saw people scattered all over the city, hundreds of people asleep on the street. It was as if an earthquake hit the city and its residents were afraid to go back into their homes. “What happened?” I asked. “Reagan cut funding for the shelters,” Roger said. “The economy sucks.” Even then those answers seemed too simplistic, completely void of responsibility.

This is how we learn the rules of community.

That was 1983. Today I walked by the courthouse in downtown Seattle. The park next to the courthouse was like a refugee camp. Every park bench served to support makeshift cardboard shelters. People slept beneath every tree and formed a line adjacent to the fences. Sleeping during the day is necessary if you have no home to return to at night. For a moment I thought it was a performance art piece, the actors having placed themselves on the ground in an orderly composition. They were so still. I felt no horror and had no impulse to help. Instead, I was more concerned with looking at them for too long; I am not supposed to notice. I am a man of my times and have internalized the rules of community.

Earlier in the day I’d read a passage about Marshal McLuhan: he wrote of the human tendency to dismiss an idea or experience by naming it. He called it “label-libel.” Attach the right label to it and you needn’t think about it any more.

“Homeless,” I said, feeling nothing. “The economy sucks,” I intoned. “Nothing to be done,” I whispered, wishing for the days when I had access to my horror.

[I’m be on the road and taking a break so I’m dipping into the archives and reworking and reposting some of your favorites. I’ll be back at it in the middle of August]

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