Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Human Condition

Last night I was standing in the parking lot of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church doing my once-weekly security duty for the children's catechism classes when a man walking by stopped to talk. I guessed his age at about fifty. I also guessed him to be homeless or near so.

Soon into the conversation I learned that he had graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in philosophy and that he had kept an active interest in the subject as an adult. He knew the major philosophical texts and their authors and spoke confidently about his views on them. We talked religion and philosophy for a while, and then, sadly, that he had spent sixteen years in the state penitentiary for drug use and sales and that he was currently living in a nearby abandoned grain silo. After a short, but serious and enjoyable conversation, he looked past me and asked in the way a man does when he is talking to himself, "Where did I go wrong?" It was a rhetorical question from a sober and haunted man.

We talked about life in general for a while longer and then he left as quietly as he came. As I stood there watching him walk away, I heard myself saying, "Where do any of us go wrong, my friend?" We all do, in some way and at some time, and some of us, repeatedly. There are those who recover sufficiently from mistakes, and others, like my parking lot friend, who do not.

While standing there I recalled the Pharisee who said, "Lord, thank you that I am not like the adulterer, extortioner or even this tax collector." A statement that needs little explanation for its obvious meaning but which reveals an inherent problem of the religious, and that is that faith moves a man to habituate himself to the good and to do good, but while doing so makes him susceptible to the greater sins of complacency, arrogance, or pride.  In the same parable, it was the humbled tax collector, unable to look up to heaven as he confessed his sins, who found pleasure in God's eyes, not the law-abiding Pharisee.

I liked the man I met on the street. I think his sins are not equal to the punishment he has received. I know that, practically speaking, he has to put the bottle down and accept responsibility if he is ever to be happy in this life. But I also know that all men are feeble and in of need God's grace and that this world has punished his sins more than mine, but probably, they are no worse.

I never saw him again, but I will remember his face, and believe that the final Judge of us all still honors the contrite.



Andrew said...
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Francis Shivone said...

I was wondering if you would notice.

Anonymous said...

You know a hobo is a homeless person that travels by jumping train cars....maybe you just spoke with a homeless man?

Francis Shivone said...

Maybe you missed the point.

Anonymous 2 said...

Well, I have spent my time around homeless folks and person who spent time in prison. A friend and I have a saying: no one's on East Lancaster without a reason. That's true whether they are literally in one of the E. Lanc. shelters or down on the south side. Drugs are usually involved; sometimes mental illness is a factor, although homelessness and mental illness are mostly two separate issues.

It really is about choices we make and how we want to live. It's easy to play psychiatrist or social worker (not saying you did either) and wonder "why". It's harder to face the fact that people really have the lives they choose. No, the lives WE choose, me and you just like that guy and many like him.

Francis Shivone said...

My friend, I will defer to your wisdom. Thanks for contributing.

Anonymous 2 said...

Rambling on, I forgot to make my point, which is that human freedom is a terrible thing. An immense good, of course, but terrible.

Francis Shivone said...

Ramble away.
I do take issue with some of what you say, that is, it is not a level playing field for everyone. An "untouchable" in India isn't "choosing" his earthly destiny as easily as Ivana Trump. So, in a smaller way, the man who struggles with drink or some other life effecting vice. It is his "fault" but I still am obligated to do good to all men.

Anonymous said...

Definitely agree that the playing field is not level, from trivial matters such as being lousy at math (that would be me) to a family history of diabetes (also me). Choices are always made within the constraints of one's biology and upbringing - nature plus nurture, to use the old cliches. An alcoholic cannot (morally) chose to drink; someone not prone to compulsive drinking does have that choice.

It really is a problem when we consider the human will. At one end you have calvinism (actually post-Calvin) where human choice has no place; at the other end you get pelagianism. Clearly, the will is NOT free in an absolute sense, nor are we saved by our choices. Even semi-pelagianism remains a heresy. But my experience - professional and personal - with homeless folks - including those with severe and persistent mental illness - suggests that something in those folks is actively resisting a lifestyle that accepts the constraints and responsibilities of normal living. I've seen it too many times that a person has the opportunity to work and get off the streets and simply revert to their old ways. Not that we don't all do that, of course. I don't see myself as something "other than" a homeless person. I have my own rebellions and bad choices, my own soul-sickness. "Fault" is probably not a helpful way to look at it; but the homeless person, like all of us, bears responsibility for his choices, even though those choices were made within certain constraints. The evidence for this, I think, is the abused child who doesn't grow up to be an abuser, or the veteran who doesn't end up drunk on the streets. Circumstances play a role, but the degree to which they are determinitive is, I guess, the question.

Rambling thoughts AND run on sentences... sorry. :-)

Francis Shivone said...

We're not going to solve the choice/determination problem here,though I do like the discussion.
I like the thoughts Anonymous, and for the most part agree. Actually, I didn't see a whole lot of ramble there, either. Thank you for taking the time to write.