‘GREAT THINGS ARE NOT ACCOMPLISHED BY THOSE who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” So said American poet Jack Kerouac. I wonder what he’d think of the latest trend of taking selfies in front of homeless people. Never mind; we already know. He’d be disgusted. Fortunately, he would also be angered, and in such a state would want to do something about it.
In Europe, America and now Canada, it’s become the big thing – find someone down and out, living on the streets, take a selfie of yourself in front of the person on your cellphone, and then broadcast it out to all your friends. I know, it’s stupid and insensitive. But more than that, it speaks to just what we are willing to accept in the modern era. No permission is ever asked of the person in the street. The joy is in the placing of oneself in the centre of the frame, not of assisting the struggling and anonymous person in the background. Just as we take pictures of floods or hurricanes without ever connecting them to the environmental conditions that cause them, so we have entered an era where it’s cool, not to be homeless, but to get your photos captured in front of people who represent the fallout of materialism and a narcissistic society.
In Canada, five out of ten people are two pay cheques away from being without a home, and yet we remain so oblivious of that fact that we merely shake our head in dismay at those who would capture a fleeting moment of photographic fame in front of someone fallen on hard times.
Television celebrity, Anderson Cooper, was aware of this troubling trend in selfie satisfaction, but gave it little thought. In fact, he confesses to being “annoyed” by a homeless man outside of his door in New York City. “I just ignored him. I just pretended he wasn’t there.” Then, for a “60-Minutes” segment, he did a story about the chronically homeless and saw firsthand the demeaning nature of his own prejudice. It unnerved him. “When I finished the story and thought of that man outside my door, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. This is my issue. Me pretending not to see this person is insane and offensive.” He decided to approach the man, an awakening that now causes him to view homelessness through “a different lens.”
Then there is the moving story of 10-year old Natalia Marsh-Welton. Suffering from a brain tumor, she confessed to getting cold while undergoing chemotherapy. “I’m cold all of the time,” she says. “Imagine how cold people without homes must be.”
And then Natalia did a remarkable thing. With a local chef, she concocted a soup she labeled, “Chef Natalia’s Soup of Love” and began feeding the homeless in her hometown of Cincinnati. Her own prognosis could easily have drawn attention, but instead Natalia placed herself in the background and brought to public attention the demanding circumstances of the city’s homeless. Her touching efforts don’t even belong in the same universe as the insensitive “selfies” crowd.
Poverty is hardly some kind of canvas upon which we can paint our own designs. It represents the dashed hopes, forgotten dreams, and quiet despair of hundreds of thousands among us, and who this country has forgotten. Worse, modern poverty is about hunger, mental illness, dependency, bitter loneliness, unemployment, broken hearts, no place to live, and no money to feed the children. Such people are not mere pieces of tapestry occupying some bland background to our busy lives; they are the failure of our dedication to citizenship and country. They represent our absolute loss of imagination when it comes to politics, capitalism, and their capabilities. Ultimately, they speak to our inability to build inclusive communities and empathetic humanity.
This isn’t merely about forgetfulness, or, in the case of selfies, even heartlessness. It’s about the failure of a country and the abject condition of our official policy. The fact that an increasing number of veterans are filling the ranks of the homeless only adds to this sense of national shame.
Let’s not merely give to those organizations dealing with this blight. Let’s get to work behind our desks, blogging, tweeting, texting, and exhorting ourselves to building the kind of politics and public space that not only gets the homeless into productive lives, but gets people out from being in front of the camera and into the highways and byways of our communities where they can fight for inclusion in our city streets.
“To perceive is to suffer,” Aristotle said. Let’s lose our penchant for making ourselves the centre of our own individual universe and build communities bonded in anguish for those lost among us. That’s a picture I’d love to see.