Entitled to Poverty

“I’m called crazy a lotta times already. It don’t bother me.

My wife says, ‘Leon, you gotta expect it.’ She says, ‘People never understand a man who wants something more outa life than just money.’

People think you gotta be one of two things: either you’re a shark or you gotta lay back and let the sharks eatcha alive—this is the world. Me, I’m the kinda guy’s gotta go out and wrestle with the sharks. Why? I dunno. This is crazy? Okay.”

-Richard Yates, A Wrestler with Sharks, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

I have never done drugs. I have had very brief moments of controllable levels of alcoholism. I have lived in a life of love and unending comfort. And I curse myself for it. I curse my parents, though with thankful undertones. If I hadn’t been brought up in comfort, I’d know what people mean when they say addiction is a cave, where every step towards its mouth is also a step towards vulnerability’s gnawing teeth of open air and light. I’d know what they meant when they tell me about being dope sick, being shunned by lifelong friends. Instead, I’m that fucking ignorant suburban kid who got arrested once for being too much of a goddamn square to know how to spraypaint a wall in secret, who nods and says ‘it’s hard’, when I actually haven’t the slightest goddamn clue.

After one of my cynical, over-tired rants about people who own Mercedes-Benz vehicles, my father asked me where the line is when wealth becomes acceptable. Mom wisely, fairly, replied, as I was walking out the door to get my dad to drive me to the pub, that each person must decide this line themselves. As I shut the door, I told her that everyone sucks at determining where wealth is acceptable, so maybe I should decide for them. The makings of a true communist dictator. We all smiled and soaked in the exaggerated version of my disgruntlement. Dad drove me to the pub. I brought my cynicisms to my boss on Monday morning. She said that she doesn’t think wealth is bad. Wealth is a dirty word to me. It is entitlement. Entitlement based on good decisions and investments, hard work, responsibility. Entitlement is based on the belief of personal ownership when really nothing in this world is wholly ours. Therefore entitlement is greed and arrogance. Entitlement in any form is unattractive and abrasive. Wealth is not unacceptable, but it must be responsible, sustainable, frugal, generous, moderate, fair.

My recent public speaking engagement revolved around my travels, my writing, my work, and punk rock. I spoke to a group of twenty seniors who likely relate punk music to Elvis. I told them that it took me quitting university, going to India three times, travelling North America with the musically-inclined, writing a sorry excuse for a book, to finally find a place where I felt like I was supposed to be. And it has never been harder. I also told them that we all fit in in the same way, by an obligation to help those in need, in whatever means we can. However, it is not, and will never be, enough.

Ann Livingston is a true wrestler of sharks. A co-founder of VANDU, she helped establish the first safe-injection site in North America as an act of civil disobedience, done before it was made legal by the government. She suggests that the obligation to save lives is always greater than the obligation to obey the law. This seems like common sense. Similarily, the obligation to help others is greater than the obligation to obtain wealth. This may (or may not) be widely agreed upon, but not widely practiced. I know that I am lucky to have the job I do. They could’ve hired another graduate student, straight off of the uninformed teat that is institutionalized education, who would be more able than I to write government grants and better know the system in which people must play to find comfort and peace. And there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that. I am lucky to have a job that has a direct impact, and though it may seem otherwise, I do not give myself credit over others for it. I often do the opposite.

It is important not to be the shark. There are enough of them. It is equally important to not allow the shark to ‘eatcha alive’. If each one of us decided to poke the shark, to throw a rock at the shark in the pool of water that it circles hungrily, the problems that I am unable to relate to would change substantially. We would leave our entitlements and privilege behind. We wouldn’t have to curse our parents for loving us.

I love you, mom and dad.

However, it is not, and will never be, enough.

Why? I dunno. This is crazy? Okay.