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Everyone Deserves Everything They Need
There but for the grace of God go I.
One of my favourite people is a murderer. He’s a sweet, gentle old man who sits around in a gritty urban park in Montreal’s west end watching the world go by. Whenever he sees me his eyes crinkle up and he goes in for a hug or a handshake. When I was doing street intervention for the shelter nearby and I would go to visit him he would always refuse to take most of the supplies I offered. He was fiercely independent and, though his alcohol use occasionally made it difficult, he always maintained a tidy camp somewhere, near some train tracks or under an overpass, with an expertly pitched tent, clotheslines, well-stowed gear, an ashtray and a folding chair for visitors. I was there for the memorial service given for his girlfriend, a woman I had cared for very deeply, whose face was always cycling between huge emotions: a grin splitting it from ear to ear, or wide-eyed, open-mouthed surprise, or her brows furrowed, dark eyes flashing in anger. After she died I tried to visit him as much as I could. He was never the same after that, though his old self would shine through from time to time. Losing his beloved life partner, on top of the years he had spent being traumatized in prison, was too much for him. He can’t take care of himself very well anymore.
At that same park I met an old woman, hunched over and swaying gently, frail as a twig and dwarfed by her layers and layers of coats. She would accumulate piles of garbage and stand guard over the heap, going into hysterics if anyone tried to move it. She mumbled and rambled and spoke in opaque code to people she didn’t trust, and everyone thought she was on drugs. The police, speaking loudly and slowly over her quiet, frantic objections, gave her a few days to clear her stuff out or they would throw it all in the dumpster. I tried to make friends with her and found that she was sharp as a tack and always sober. She was a well-read and well-informed woman with a photographic memory for details and a clear, joyous laugh when she let her guard down. I also discovered that she was much younger than she looked and she was the survivor of horrific child abuse. Much of her strange behaviour was probably the result of dissociative identity disorder brought on by extreme trauma. She was narcoleptic and the swaying was her struggling not to fall asleep on her feet. She had untreated eye infections so advanced that she was functionally blind and could rarely tell who was talking to her. I did my best to get her a place at a supervised living facility, using all my connections and resources to fast-track her application. I put her piles of strange belongings in storage, and put her up in a motel. Myself and all my colleagues were let go from that job all at the same time the midst of a unionization attempt, and I never saw my plan come to fruition. A year later I saw her back in the park, swaying with her eyes closed, a small heap of plastic bags and cardboard boxes around her feet.
Everyone deserves everything they need. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. It doesn’t matter how strange they look or how mystifying their behaviour is. It doesn’t matter how much you disagree with them, it doesn’t matter if they are impossible to get along with, it doesn’t matter if they have literally killed a man. There is a saying in 12 Step programs: “there but for the grace of God go I.” I am not better than, or fundamentally different from, a homeless addict, or a crazy bag lady, or a murderer – or a hockey bro, or a Republican, or a Karen or a tenderqueer. Millions of tiny eddies in the world around us, little gusts of causality over which we have absolutely no control, bring us where we are and sculpt us into ourselves. It’s not that there is no free will, it’s that we can only take responsibility for so much, in this life, and the rest is up to the universe; and as much as we like to draw up rigid distinctions between ourselves and others, we’re all in this together, participating in the same human condition, making the same mistakes, struggling against the same vices and flaws.
The recognition of this spiritual equality is the message carried by the better sort of religious teacher; the extension of this equality to the political realm is the message of socialism. We proudly and stubbornly proclaim it. There is no class of person which deserves more than another. There is no distinction of wealth that justifies political privilege. There is no phenotype which is more worthy of punishment or praise. There is no category which can be comfortably dehumanized and no caste which can be held up above the others. All of us are to be loved and all of our policies and philosophies and dreams for the future must flow from this. This stance is the synthesis of the two principles of grace and solidarity, and it is the path forward, the antidote to alienation and exploitation, and the solution to spiritual and political emptiness. It is how we begin to build the new world now.
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