I had a few unsettling experiences lately. Minor, really, but it does make me question our culture’s priorities, or at least my own. And, misery loving company, what can I do but share that discomfort with all of you?
Yesterday* I exited the bank with $20 in cash in my pocket. Looking across the intersection, I saw a man lying down on the sidewalk under a blanket… next to his wheelchair. Obviously homeless. Obviously unable to work. I considered crossing the street and handing him one of my nice new ten-dollar bills. I decided not to. I decided not to because I was in a bit of a hurry, and because I had an intended destination for some of that money: Ron, another homeless man I’ve come to know pretty well. You help your friends first.
On my way up the road, I dropped into the ice cream shop and unhesitatingly spent $4.50 on a pint for the party I was throwing that night.
Now armed with one-dollar bills instead, I gave a buck to a guy who I didn’t remember at all, though he seemed to remember me pretty well… or at least the (probable) alcohol did.
Today I went up to the farmer’s market and spent another ten-dollar bill on potatoes and kale. A little expensive, but I like getting good local food. I also passed up buying some pears because I knew they’d be just a luxury for me. I deliberately saved a five to give to Ron.
Then I went to the Apple store and spent $86.51 on a new power cord for my laptop.
This last one is the one that’s bothering me most. Did I really need that power cord? On the one hand, I rely heavily on my computer for work, and there are a few projects in progress that I really need a functional laptop for, not one due to run out of power in twenty minutes. Also I’m discovering that I need my computer for social interaction, more than I’d care to admit. So getting a cord quickly was maybe the right idea. Plus I got the whole computer for free, so spending a little on maintenance is nothing, really — less than a hundred spent on a mostly-state-of-the-art machine? Cheap at twice the price.
But I got the computer from a friend who used to fix them for a living, nor is he the only friend who knows a thing or two. Should I have called someone and tried to get the power cord patched up first? Should I have pushed for a repair at the store, instead of a replacement? Should I have just limped along on my old slow computer until I made something else work? I have a nagging feeling that I didn’t really pay for a functional computer. I paid so that I could go back home and get on the internet fifteen minutes later. I paid to have it be easy.
Considering I spent a big part of the party talking with friends about the constraints of stuff, the inability to shed all the accumulated items of a life, I have the particularly nagging feeling that I didn’t command my stuff: it commanded me.
I juxtapose this with my encounters with the homeless because a thought keeps crossing my mind as I pass them on the street: “If I give you this dollar, and you eat tonight,” I keep wondering, “who else doesn’t get to eat?” I am nervous about being such a “chooser of the fed,” if you will. I am always nervous when I have power over others, a power not of their own choosing… or at least I should be. I am especially so when I realize that the cord now powering the laptop I type this on costs more than a night in a hotel room for Ron. If I’d figured out another way to fix the problem, then he might have had another night out of the cold.
Instead of helping my fellow people I spent money on ice cream and power cords. Or, to put it more simply, these past few days I was “chooser of the fed” whether I liked it or not, and I decided to feed myself luxuriously.
“It was your birthday!” some may say. “You need the power cord to make more money, and thereby help more people,” others might point out. These are not untrue things. What’s also true, however, is that I walked past one man and picked another to help… and I also helped myself. Was there any justice in that? Any compassion?
Someday, I think, I may have to go Full Assisi and give away everything. But is that wisdom, either? Is it better to parlay my education and my property into a useful salary, so I can keep funneling wealth to the causes I prefer? Keeping myself alive is probably a halfway-reasonable cause, too, but does it need to involve ice cream? Or by renouncing everything down to the clothes off my back, might I be the inspiration to others to break the shackles of their stuff and give more freely too, as St. Francis would be the inspiration for me? Or would the whole thing be a self-indulgent, self-centric, Guilty White Boy stunt to assuage a troubled conscience? Would that, too, be a purchase of convenience, a shortcut to an untroubled conscience, another way of making it easy? Considering the huge number of people I still wouldn’t be feeding, would it even make much difference? Would it even matter that much “to that one” as the starfish story goes? Am I greedy, lucky, overly analytical, or all three?
For the moment I have no answers for myself or for you. But perhaps the questions aren’t a bad place to start. If we all start to think about the way we choose to feed some and not others, maybe more people would wind up fed. If we kept thinking along those lines, we might even begin to shift the world a bit. Who knows, maybe it would be a world where good potatoes and power cords cost less. Just a thought.
And maybe, if we stopped buying ice cream and power cords altogether, we wouldn’t live in a world where those with the money like me decide every day who we choose to feed. Maybe the hungry could feed themselves, and we the wealthy would no longer have power over them.
But for today, the power to choose — indeed, the power to think about choosing, which is a luxury of sorts — remains in the hands that hold the dollars, be it one or a billion. And we choose whether we think about it or not.
*: Actually last year. Such is the nature of the Filter.