What Kind of Society Are We?
Last weekend, when I was driving to the ferry, I saw one of my old colleagues. We’d been professors together. He had two grocery carts filled with returnable bottles and cans, black plastic bags full of something, maybe his clothes, what might have been a sleeping bag.
The weather has turned cold. Not Manitoba cold but, in the morning, there’s frost on the ground. My former colleague is wearing a quilted parka now. The hood was partly up. I saw that like most of us, he’s going bald. He’s bent over so I assume he’s suffering from osteoporosis. He was counting the bottles and cans he’d collected from the recycling blue boxes.
He was a professor until mental illness claimed him. His medical leave ran out. He lost his position but stayed around campus. He spent his time cleaning up the grounds, collecting paper and putting it in garbage bags. He spent time reading in the library. Eventually, he became threatening and was banned from campus.
Being intelligent doesn’t protect you from mental illness.
I had a brilliant student who suffered from bipolar disease. Handsome, intelligent, creative, personable. He was a pleasure to have in class. But by third year, the disease had taken over. He came less and less and, finally, not at all. I ran into him a year or so later. We talked about poetry and writing on a street corner. Two years after that I saw him again when I was downtown. He didn’t recognize me. His hair was long and matted, his clothes filthy. He was lost in his own head.
I had another student. Beautiful, quirky, charming. She tried very hard to attend classes, get good grades but, eventually, couldn’t organize her life to fit the necessary schedules. She left campus, tried various jobs. She wasn’t lazy or irresponsible. She wasn’t stupid. But whatever was wrong, she simply couldn’t organize her life enough to hold a job, keep a place to live. Any time I saw her, I always had the sense of a lost child in a woman’s body. A lost child in some crazy funhouse full of distorting mirrors and endless rooms with doors that just led to more strange, confusing rooms. She eventually committed suicide.
At one time, we believed that we were our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We recognized that there will always be people who cannot look after themselves, people who need a structure created and run by others. Other people who are capable of building accommodation, who can look after it, who can provide meals on a schedule, who can see that medications are taken on time, who can see that those who are vulnerable are protected from exploitation.
We got rid of these places because there were new pills that would fix everything. New pills that would mean we didn’t need to pay taxes to build places for the care of the mentally ill. It’s all about money, you see. It’s all about our allowing some people to pay themselves and their cronies 40 million dollars a year plus perks plus options while attacking the waste of tax money in providing entitlements for the poor, the ill, the mentally disabled, the unemployed. The same people who rail against things like unemployment insurance are the same people who have moved their factories offshore so they can exploit even poorer people. We allow this one percent to pay less taxes than someone making 40,000 dollars a year. Give a political donation and, in return, get a loophole.
We can have any kind of society we want. At the moment, we’ve got a society that was conned into believing greed was good, in the trickle-down effect, in the global economy whose sole purpose it turns out is to let the rich become even richer by giving them the right to exploit the vulnerable not just in ourr own country but in countries around the world.
When you are making 40 million a year, or more, you haven’t got time to be your brother’s keeper. When you drive by in your Pagani Zonda, or your Porsche Carrera and you see someone with two shopping carts filled with all his wordly goods, with his daily collection of returnable containers, you know that he’s not your brother. You probably aren’t even sure that he’s human. Or, if you see the pretty young blonde who looks confused, uncertain, standing at a stop light you probably don’t think she’s human either, unless she might be momentarily usable.
These are the homeless. These are the people who need low barrier shelters, who can’t afford a million dollars for a house or condo, who can’t afford anything. Our shame as a society is how well we take care of the wealthy and powerful and how poorly we take care of the weak and vulnerable.