Monday, January 6, 2014

Life Lessons with Louie

In the last few days, I've been holding a personal Louie marathon on Netflix. I just reached season three's two-part episode, "Daddy's Girlfriend," where we meet Louie's version of the manic pixie dream girl. In one scene, they walk past a homeless man. She stops and talks to the man as Louie begs her to just keep walking. After hearing the man's story, they take him to a pharmacy to get his medication and then set him up in a hotel. It was a great episode of an off-kilter, sweet, bizarre, and sometimes mind-blowing series.

A few weeks ago, I went to New York City for dinner and a show with my lady. Soon after arriving in the city, we parked and walked towards a restaurant. We weren't in a rush, but we had to be aware of the time to make the show. As we walked down the busy street, an apparently homeless woman was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, in front of a large skyscraper in one of the richest cities in the world, begging desperately for help.

She looked at us as we passed by and said, "Help me, please."

I briefly looked at her, then looked past her and kept walking. Just like everyone else.

To anyone who frequents New York City, or any big city in America, this is not an unusual scene. Unfortunately, homelessness and poverty are all too common in our excessively wealthy country. It's embarrassing, really. But this isn't a post about the failures of our government, which would be extensive, it's a post about how we treat each other as individuals. How have we evolved to the point where it is socially acceptable, indeed socially expected and proper, to ignore pleas of help from another human being? How has our natural inclination to assist those in need completely disappeared in some situations?

I've seen countless homeless people in various states of coherence and sobriety and desperation. I sometimes give spare change when I have it, and at the very least I try to be respectful. Mostly, though, I try to ignore them. It's too depressing to look at them and think about their situations. I'm trying to enjoy my night out on the town and escape my own problems for a while, I don't want to face someone else's problems, too.

What a shitty way to think. But it's what gets us through. It's still shitty. Helping each and every homeless person you encounter in NYC would be impossible, though, and honestly, it wouldn't be so bad if we just did a little more overall: push for legislation that addresses poverty and mental illness, give more of your money to charities, volunteer some of your time to others instead of spending every night entertaining yourself. Solve the problem as a whole instead of treating the symptoms, or even worse, ignoring it.

As I said, I've seen countless homeless people. This woman struck a nerve, though. Her plea was so urgent and insistent. She didn't look physically hurt, so it didn't seem like a physical emergency. In that case, I (probably...hopefully) would have helped, at the very least I would have called for help, but this seemed to be a case of a mental breakdown, and that's just too scary to deal with (to be clear, it's not the people themselves that scare me, it's mental illness/disease/deterioration itself that terrifies me). In the brief instant I acknowledged this poor woman's existence, I envisioned what helping her (truly helping her) would entail, and I knew I wasn't capable. She needed more than a few spare dollars.

The scene from Louie flashed through my mind as I walked past her (it was a very quick mental association I made; I didn't even consciously remember that what I had envisioned was from the show until I viewed it again recently) and I knew I wasn't capable of providing that kind of assistance. But Louie is a show. An absurd (yet awesome) show, and that episode in particular is absurd and most likely an extended dream/fantasy sequence. The woman Louie is dating is too good to be true. Nobody goes out of their way to help others like that, that is why she was so special. But in actuality, we don't have to go to those lengths to help people in need. There are some people that need professional, sustained assistance, and we should do our best to provide that, but I'm talking about things we can do every day.

Maybe the homeless woman would have benefited from a friendly conversation, a kind gesture from a fellow human. Or maybe she was waiting to scam the first sucker to stop and offer her help (I've encountered enough con artists to instill in me a hearty sense of distrust). Or, more than likely, she suffered from some type of mental illness and needed psychiatric and pharmaceutical help. And that's not something you can offer when you're just visiting for dinner and a show.

But we shouldn't get caught up in the things we can't do for others, we should focus on the things we can. People appreciate the smallest things. Minor gestures have major impact. I've mentioned before how many people Kevin Briggs has saved simply by talking with them and genuinely listening to them. DMC of the legendary Run DMC decided to not kill himself after hearing the Sarah MacLachlan song on the radio (you know the one) and turned his life around after meeting her. There is an endless amount of stories about people doing small, generous things for others all the time (click those links, it will make your day!) and those small, unsolicited gestures bring the greatest pleasure to everybody involved. Enough people doing enough small things leads to big things. It's cliched, it's simple almost to the point of naivete, but I'll be damned if it ain't true.

As a prophet once said, "Be excellent to each other." It makes all the difference in the world.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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