There’s no doubt about it
It was the Myth of Fingerprints,
I’ve seen ’em all
And, man, they’re all the same. — Paul Simon
I call him Sarge. I see him every day in his loose-fitting Army jacket, holding his sign, “Homeless–Need Help” and eyeing the cars stopped at the light. He stands at the bottom of the exit ramp, where I wait to make a left, our mutual discomfort obvious when we catch each other’s stares through my windshield.
It seems to come as a relief to both of us when the light finally turns green and I can drive on, toward home. Where he goes, later in the night, I have no idea.
Over the past months, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon. So much a fixture at my exit ramp, like the traffic light itself, Sarge seems unchanging. The same jacket, same hand-painted sign, same baleful expression. It’s I who change, sometimes daily.
Some days, for example, I feel sorry for him, and hand him a couple of dollars through the window. He’s a tragic figure, and I’m the lucky one, with a job and a home, a position in society. There but for the grace of God go I, etc.
Other days I see his forlorn countenance in a broader context: Sarge-as-victim, a Vietnam vet who fought in an unpopular war and returned to an ungrateful nation. Now homeless, friendless, he’s dropped through the cracks of a woefully inadequate social welfare system, whose very foundations were further dismantled during the Reagan years. I sit behind the wheel, engulfed by liberal guilt, lamenting the failed promise of the 60’s and my own yuppie-like complacency.
But then there are other times…like when I’m coming home from a long, hard day at work. I feel stressed-out, unappreciated and generally pretty sorry for myself.
On these days, as I pull up to the light and Sarge holds up his sign, I don’t see a victim of ill fortune or an uncaring society. I see a bum who ought to get a job, earn a living like I have to. I actually hear the words forming in my head, Ya know if this guy really wanted a job, he could get one…
No question about it, people like Sarge are like projective tests for the rest of us. Whether they inspire pity, guilt, or outrage, our reactions to the homeless say volumes about us and practically nothing about them.
That’s why most of our political responses to the problems of the disenfranchised–the homeless, the urban poor, those we label mentally ill–don’t work. We propose solutions as though we actually see these problems clearly (and thus know how to deal with them), when in fact our own experiences and beliefs color our perceptions.
To a conservative Republican, the less fortunate among us lack initiative, or a sense of personal responsibility. To a liberal Democrat, social programs are necessary to level the playing field for those economically, racially or educationally disadvantaged. (To a Christian fundamentalist, I suppose, the poor suffer as a result of Manifest Destiny; i.e., if they’d been graced by God in the first place, these troubles wouldn’t be happening to them.)
No matter what end of the spectrum one theorizes from, however, the observational stance is the same: the poor and homeless are the other. Other than me. Other and apart.
Paul Simon in a song from the Graceland album, calls this perceived separation between people “The Myth of Fingerprints.” If so, it’s a powerful one, as recent political events have shown. From the victory of California’s anti-immigrant initiative, symbolic of the polarizing sweep of the November elections, to the publication of the Bell Curve (which proposes a kind of caste system based on IQ), to the latest terrorist bombing in the Middle East…from the misguided to the truly monstrous, our tendency is to label, demonize and even destroy those that are different.
But what if, at a deeper level, there was no difference at all? Religion and philosophy, stripped of dogma, have emphasized this possibility for eons. Jesus said, “What you do for the least among you, you do for me.” The Buddha’s salient illumination was that “All are one,” Emerson writes of the Over-Soul, formed of all of us.
From many cultures and times, people have intuitively grasped this transcendent perspective. Martin Buber writes, “When I encounter a human being, it is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, a loose bundle of named qualities…he is You and fills the firmament…”
All are one, therefore all are in God, and of God. In most of the world’s mystical traditions, to believe otherwise is a delusion. The Myth of Fingerprints.
But people are different, we insist, with different traits, some good and some bad. To which the late Zen master Shunryu Suzuki responded by suggesting the metaphor of a river, going over a waterfall. The cascading water separates into a million distinct drops–each droplet different, yet sharing the same properties of water (just as human beings have different feelings and personalities, while sharing the same basic properties). In Suzuki’s analogy, as the drops of water return to their natural state of oneness in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, so too do we find our true nature in an awareness of our Oneness with all things.
A sublime, profoundly simple image. Perhaps too simple. Can we make such a leap? As human beings, we seem so eager to differentiate ourselves from each other by roles and jobs and income, by faiths and national borders and political affiliation, by skin color and blood type and body shape, by gender… We wrap ourselves in our differences, even celebrate it as diversity and go on staring at each other, literally and figuratively, down the barrels of guns.
Which brings me back to Sarge. Because the simple truth is, it doesn’t matter whether the sight of him elicits anger or pity in me. Until I can understand that, at a fundamental level, there is no difference between us, I’ll continue to see him–and those like him–as a problem to be solved, an other to be dealt with.
And so I stay behind the wheel, avoiding his gaze, waiting for the light to change…
Article written by Dennis Palumbo. Reprinted from the AHP Perspective magazine, July/August 1995, Association for Humanistic Psychology.