Life Lessons from a Gutter Punk

Jeremy and Whiskers

Jeremy is a jolly man.  His well-upholstered and tattooed physique seems to hold reserves of joy.  Things rarely get him down.  If offended, he quickly takes responsibility for his part in the interaction.  If things don’t go his way, he sees how the new plan might be the best one after all.  He seems to concoct interpretations that leave him happy in any given situation.
Jeremy is not delusional.  He lives in a very real world at a place called the Catholic Worker.  Beside housing a daily soup line open to all, the Worker is a home to about thirty people, a mixture of ideal-driven volunteers like Jeremy and “the least among us”—people like Whiskers, a rotund, lisping, respiratory-disease ridden seventy-something-year-old man who has lived there for forty years.  The Worker strives to be the ideal of a Christian “house of hospitality,” which means that everyone is welcome and nothing is asked of those who come through its doors.
Like many others who live there and pass through the Worker’s, Jeremy is neither Catholic nor Christian.  He’s a self-described anarchist, similar to the house, whose ethos is broadly defined as Christian anarchism, which focuses on following Jesus’ teachings without the conversion stuff.
Prior to the Worker, Jeremy was a homeless gutter-punk for many years, begging and boozing his way around the country.  Circumstantially, he’s not much better off now.  He has stopped boozing, but hasn’t got a nickel to his name and when he does, he gives it away.  His clothes are picked from the donation bin at the house.  His teeth are rotting from years of neglect.  He sleeps on a hard, narrow bed in a room shared with two other people (his former roommate used to watch TV all day and night while chain-smoking).  The house is lit by flickering, drop-ceilinged florescent lighting that illuminate dinging linoleum floors.  The bulk of his interactions are with homeless people, many of whom have severe mental disorders and addictions.
And Jeremy is not “connected” in the sense many are defining that word nowadays.  He has no computer, much less a Facebook account.  If you want to know what he’s doing, you have to ask him.     He does have an email address, but he checks its teeming inbox about three times a year, usually to get one email, then logs out and let it lay fallow.  His main source of news is the monthly Catholic Worker newspaper, which espouses radical non-violence and social justice.  You cannot geo-locate him on foursquare.  He does have a phone and is a prodigious texter, but he uses it to communicate directly with his innumerable friends.
By conventional terms, Jeremy is living the anti-American dream:  no money, no chicks, no car, no fancy clothes, no fame, no security, offline.  And yet if you met him, you’d see he is happier than all but the smallest fraction of society.  What gives?
While it’s tough to tease apart the one cause of Jeremy’s good cheer, there are a few life-strategies I’ve observed that might help explain his happiness:

  1. Service.  This is sort of an old-timey lesson, but an important one.  Want to reduce your own problems?  Focus on other peoples’ problems.  It’s a simple matter of displacement.  Despite what those of us who think we can text and email and listen to our ipods and pick our noses at the same time, it is only possible to do and focus on one thing at a time.  You cannot focus on yourself and your problems when you are focused on others and theirs.  Jeremy and the other house-members live lives of service based on the Christian “Works of Mercy,” spiritual guidelines derived from Jesus’ teaching.  The Works are divided between corporeal works (feeding hungry, clothing naked, etc.) and spiritual works (instruct ignorant, bear wrongs patiently, etc.).  Though rooted in Jesus’ teaching, aside from the seventh spiritual work—“pray for the living and the dead”—there is nothing Christian or religious about their dictums.  They just encourage the novel concept of focusing on other people and their needs.  Leave out the prayer, and Richard Dawkins could be merciful worker.
  2. Anarchism.  Perhaps “acceptance” is a more palatable word, but the idea is the same:  that we leave people to make their own choices.  This might sound like apathy, but this variety of anarchist shifts the focus to his own behavior, or in the words of Worker Ammon Hennacy, “he achieves that ideal [following Jesus’ message] daily by the One-Man Revolution with which he faces a decadent, confused, and dying world.”  Following Jesus’ message does not require that you achieve agreement (apparently Jesus met some opposition in his time). One’s ability to feed the poor need not require that the hungry feed themselves in the future.  One’s admonishment of war need not require that the perpetrators of war stop warring.  To divorce one’s actions from how they will be received is a subtle but big difference.  If we depend on forces outside ourselves to guide our behavior—attaching ourselves to particular responses and outcomes—we are going to be eternally pissed off.  People will never live into our ideals.  Situations will never satisfy.  When we don’t accept the world as it is, when we attempt to impose our views on others, when we try to convert, we generate a world of opposition and violence.  Accepting, on the other hand, allows us to take things as they are.  In that way, we don’t get all worked up.  We don’t say that things should be different.  We become free to act without the weight of oppositional anger.  For example, we might not like war, but we can accept that it is happening, and we can do all we can to provide an alternative.
  3. Selective attention.  Beside living in an environment whose whole reason for being is feeding the poor and world peace, I think Jeremy is uncorrupted by the ceaseless buffet of information most Americans dine on.  In the course of writing this essay, I’ve switched back and forth from the internet twenty-plus times.  A couple sites were germane to the article (looking up the Works of Mercy and the Hennacy quote), but most were not.  I saw blips about the upcoming elections, a whole bunch of inane Facebook status updates and several emails that competed with my attention.  Walking through my neighborhood this morning, most people I passed were either staring at their phones or clutching them.  I don’t want to vilify computers, smartphones, the internet or whatever (that would be an act of violence after all), but I do believe it is reasonable to ask why we all seem to be so obsessed with the information these things convey.  While information has no intrinsic positive or negative value, it informs our consciousness whether we like it or not.  We can’t not think about the white elephant.  If the front page of the New York Times has a story about a massacre in Iraq, that information shapes our worldview.  It’d be great if we when we saw that information, we started preaching nonviolence, protesting the war or initiated some sort of response that accorded with our worldview, but most of us just get pissed off, despair or sink into some state of righteousness.  The soundbites on Facebook, the websites we view, the emails and texts that carry obligations to fill and relationships to tend—all of these things leave little room for the present moment.  Our present states are thus mediated by a barrage of information, almost none of which is connected to our immediate circumstances. Like most of us, Jeremy is surrounded by conditions that demand his attention.  But unlike us, who replace the responsibilities of our immediate circumstances with remote ones (most of which we do nothing about or have no agency over), Jeremy responds to his present circumstances—he feeds when he sees the hungry; he clothes when he sees the naked; he teaches when he encounters the ignorant; he even gets dental work when his teeth hurt.

We are probably not going take on lives of self-sacrifice and voluntary poverty like Jeremy, but some of his behavior is easily replicable.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of turning our attention to what’s going on around us, gazing at the trees lining the sidewalk or responding to someone who needs help.  We live in a world so obsessed with what’s next—the newest iPhone, the next senator or Delaware, awaiting emails, etc.—perhaps we need to start acting more like Jeremy, asking what is now?

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