I know two guys. They don’t like each other. The guy we’ll call Joseph is a lawyer —a prosecutor— and the guy we’ll call Pete is a street person who makes his living collecting bottles in residential neighbourhoods.
Both of them think each other’s lives are crazy and both wonder how I can be friends with someone as strange as the other guy. I find them fascinating. And you might too. Because they really help delineate the remarkable differences people can have in their sense of reality.
Joseph can’t imagine why a guy would want to live under a bridge, or why he would collect bottles when there’s even a single job available. Especially in where I am, in Edmonton, where it gets cold and snowy in the winter. He assumes the only reason anyone would do this is either mental illness or alcoholism or drug addictions, so let’s look closely at those reasons.
Pete notes that, as governments cut services to keep taxes down for guys like Joseph, the politicians naturally attack the things that won’t hurt them in the voting booth, which makes small and expensive problems like mental illness and crime rehabilitation end up as logical and easy targets for cuts.
It’s not hard to see Pete’s point. In many jurisdictions around the world there are people outside that belong inside, getting care and support in a professionally staffed facility.
But in addition to the addicts and the mentally ill, there’s another group Joseph can’t comprehend. They’re like Pete. They’re on the street by choice. Some of them even have sizable bank accounts. They’re like the pre-depression hobos. They’re more philosophical. They just don’t want to live the way we do. They think we live with too many rules and obligations and judgments.
To Pete, Joseph’s life looks like a straight jacket. His boss might be less intelligent and capable than him, but that won’t matter –Joseph will have to take those instructions. In court he has a Judge and a set of rules to follow “like’s he’s five years old.” Pete says.
For large parts of his day, Joseph has to speak in a highly formalized way before he’ll even be recognized, and because we’re in Canada he’s even wearing robes. If you take away the spectre of ‘the law,’ it looks like some weird silly alien piece of theatre. But it’s not just Joseph’s work that seems crazy to Pete.
Pete notices that Joseph also waits in a lot of line-ups to spend all of his money. At the gas station, in convenience stores, at the bank, at hardware stores that never seem to have staff, in tents overnight for iPhones, waiting for food to arrive at home…. Spending money has never been less pleasant.
Pete notes that Joseph has the needs of other people guiding his actions for 95% of his waking day, whereas Pete has total control for 95% of his own. To Pete, he’s the rich one, not Joseph. And if you really stop to think about it, Pete’s got a decent point. I know I would –and most of the people I know would– love more peace, volition and freedom (not to mention less time waiting for satisfaction.) Pete follows satisfaction as a lifestyle.
In the end neither of them is right or wrong. They have each picked their own poisons. Joseph takes comfort in conformity and status, and Pete will take the pains of the street in return for the freedom.
Every person faces these questions as an individual. Will it be a strange dance of formal English and appointments and obligations? Or will it be waking up when you feel like it but sleeping in the cold? Even these extremes can lead to an enjoyable life, it’s just a matter of who we are and what feels natural for us.
We should not feel compelled to let other people tell us how we should feel about anything. Pete and Joseph might be a long ways apart for the purposes of the example, but even people who seem close can differ in some surprisingly big ways. Most marriage tensions occur because each individual imagined a different form of relationship.
What would be right for them may not be right for us, so we need not bother with other’s judgments. And while we’re at it, we can also avoid judging their paths too. We are all better to fully focus on your own. Not that we should judge ours either. Cheerlead it, yes. But berate ourselves? No.
In honour of Pete and Joe, today, let’s go make the sort of choices that will lead to a truly rewarding day for the people we each are.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.