A Day of Contrasts

[This piece was originally posted as a Facebook note on Tuesday, 04 August 2009 at 19:23]

I spent the afternoon, a while back, at the Orange Alert Café, a pleasant, unassuming organic coffee spot kitty corner to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. I was there with a few friends, talking about the happy coincidences of their family lives, their children’s successes and challenges, the ups and downs – mostly downs these days, sadly – of their investment portfolios, the longing of some to go back to school for various things: creative writing, marketing, pottery, accounting, sculpture, and so on. It was warm and pleasant.

Everyone left around 5pm to go back to their busy lives – close up shop, pick kids up from after-school activities, buy fresh fruit and flowers for dinner that night. I was feeling calm and happy afterward, so I decided to spend a little more time there, on my own, with a book and a jasmin green tea. I like watching the business day end and people hurrying to get away from the lives they lead at work to transform into the people they are at home. You can almost see it happening in their faces, as they lug briefcases and rolly bags through revolving doors, down the sidewalk, and then into streetcars, buses and subways, en route to domesticity and the delicious luxury of personal time.

After an hour or so of this, I decided to join a friend for dinner in Richmond Hill, north of the city. We went for Korean bbq – one of my favourites, because you have an incredible variety of meats and veggies and also there is a lack of pretension because everyone has to roll up sleeves and get cooking. It’s like having a casual bbq, but in a chic, modern decor that would normally be reserved for mid- to high-end restaurants. I like the contrast.

After dinner, we hung out casually for a drink and chatted about our lives – the fact that we’re both still single and looking, the challenges of living and working near Toronto, a great metropolis in which it is difficult for people to connect, like electrons flitting around a great atom smasher, never quite hitting one another quite right to stick. We talked about our careers, our extended families and exchanged stories about our friends’ lives – catching up on the nothing news that makes life pleasant and gives Torontonians a feeling of connection, despite the city’s vastness and the loneliness of our cars and cubicles.

Feeling a little bored and antsy, we decided to meet another friend to see an film at one of the giant suburban movie theatres that ring Toronto and have absurd names like Colossus. I like the work of the director, J.J. Abrams – it is stylish, moving and sometimes even profound. The film didn’t disappoint – in fact, the casual suburban crowd in attendance gave it a rousing ovation once the credits rolled! So that was great. When I dropped my friend off at home, he was excitedly going on about flaws he had found in the film. I drove off into the night, back towards my home in Hamilton.

Then I got a terrible phone call.

You see, there was a very poor man. I will call him Simon. He worked beside me as a volunteer on a community campaign a long time ago. He has a slight mental disability and is a little obsessive at times. He can be very trying, even vexing to speak to because he always wants to talk to you about the same things: his broken family background, infrastructure funding – especially public transit systems – and municipal politics. Sometimes Simon would come to the office and sit with us while we worked. Sometimes he would be quiet and read a magazine or snack on the home-baked goodies that we always had in the front lobby, provided by kind neighbourhood grandmas. Sometimes Simon would find internet sites about improvements to the city’s systems and tell me: “Professor, if you get a chance, you should bring this one up with the Mayor or those big shots in Ottawa – it would be great to have something like this in Toronto”. I was always patient with him and often enjoyed his enthusiasm for the topics he brought up with me.

Well, the voice on the phone said that it was from the hospital and that I should come. It was a nurse. She said that Simon had identified me as someone who would come to see him. I turned the car around and drove down to the hospital. Apparently Simon had been beaten almost to death. I waited in the cracked plastic chairs until they called me in and then I saw him, his face a swollen mess. One of his eyes was bandaged. And his cheeks were raw and bruised. He had wisps of dried blood at the corners of his mouth that the nurses had missed, I guess. When he saw me, his face lit up and he gave me a big smile with his good eye twinkling. He said: “Thanks for coming, Professor. I thought you might.” Then he coughed hard. A furrowed look of worry passed across his face and then he asked “Have you heard about the new VIA Rail plan for Hamilton, where you live?” And so we talked for a bit about the city and its systems until he had quieted down and the nurse told me he was ready for sleep. She said to me: “He had a big panic attack when he came in here and asked for you. He said you were his friend and would come. That you would understand. I guess you did. Thanks. He has no one.” She shrugged and turned away. And then I left to drive home.

When I got home, I had a real mix of thoughts. What a crazy, weird, unfair world we live in. One minute I am in a suburban theatre with the well-heeled Abrams fans watching an engaging fiction, the next I am in Toronto with a destitute, solitary old man, suffering from panic anxiety disorder who had been beaten to within an inch of his life.

We must work to fix this world.

It has to be better, more hopeful, more loving: less navel-gazing, less fake – more real. In Simon’s suffering lie the missions of the political progressive and the person of faith – the reminder that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That we must overcome our selfish anxieties and strive be a light to others. To be bringers of light: the light of hope and inclusion. A politics of hope, aimed at building a loving society, must reach out to and embrace all of its members. We must find ways to create roles and places for everyone, both emotional and economic. At the heart of a life of poverty lies a profound loneliness and alienation – a feeling of rejection that can lead to hopelessness.

Someone very dear to me asked me once if I was ever jaded by my volunteer work in politics. It can take up a lot of time and offer little tangible reward. Often its emotional costs are high. So why am I not jaded by politics? Am I a hopeless idealist? I think not. Politics is visceral – it is the negotiated story of people’s dreams and fears, anxieties and hopes. It is a practice that lays the road for human potential in a society.

It is by helping and sharing of ourselves that we are transformed and liberated from our fears and insecurities. A certain joy can only be experienced in the giving up of self to others, in humble service. It makes one light of step. It is freedom.

I can answer that I am not jaded by politics – it is because of those who cannot represent themselves that we engage.

I left the hospital energized and feeling light – not heavy hearted – because Simon was not defeated. For Simon, as he told me, beatings may be a part of life, but a moment of friendly support is the star that guides him forward toward hope.

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