Homeless Boredom

Homeless Boredom

In a recent episode of his podcast, Tyler Cowen interviewed a man experiencing chronic homelessness in Washington DC. He refers to himself as an NFA (no fixed address) and goes by the name Alexander the Grate. He was introduced to Cowen by James Deutsch, a Curator at the Smithsonian who had profiled Alexander in past scholarly work.
One of the questions that Cowen asked Alexander was how he spent his time as an NFA. He responded with a number of free things he could take part in around DC. There are Smithsonian exhibits and events that are free to attend, numerous small film festival events throughout the year, and various  free public events that he could attend. In his response, he stated, “we were all sober. We had something to do to occupy our time. … We had to do something to fill up the spaces of our sobriety and to satisfy our mind as well as entertainment and keep our mind alive, besides the soup stuff.”
His quote shows that the homeless needed something to do to stay occupied, and luckily for Alexander, Washington DC offered plenty of ways to engage his mind and fill his time. However, most homeless people in our country do not live in Washington DC, and don’t have access to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and all the free public events that take place in our National Capital. For homeless people across our country, boredom, not an overwhelming number of events and activities, is the norm.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about the boredom that homeless women face every day. “Along with perennial fatigue,” writes Liebow, “boredom was one of the great trials of homelessness.” Humans are social creatures, but in America the homeless are excluded. People are afraid of them for numerous reasons and don’t want to interact with them. We don’t want to see them around our public events, and we don’t want them to occupy the same public spaces that we occupy. As a result, homeless individuals become outcasts, forced into boredom and isolation. We want them to get a job, to get a place to live, and to re-enter society in an acceptable and respectable way, but we shut them out and leave them with nothing to entertain their minds or fill their time. As Liebow notes when profiling one of the women he met, we leave them to speak with only the birds.
Homelessness, life on the streets, and isolation seems to break people. Once someone is speaking to themselves or the birds they become even more of a social outcast, reinforcing the isolation that has broken them. I think there is an important paradox for us to acknowledge here. We want the homeless to turn their lives around, but we exclude them, force them into crushing boredom, and then criticize them when they break. We can’t expect people to suffer in such boredom and then rejoin society. We can’t expect people to face isolation and then turn things around to re-integrate. Boredom and isolation are not something we should just ignore because people are homeless, they are real problems that make life harder for the homeless, and make it less likely that they will ever become part of society again.

Carelessness

“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,” Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.

 

We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.

 

Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the  bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.

 

Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.

Truly Impressive

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

 

Ryan Holiday wrote this quote in his book Ego is the Enemy which I read a couple years back. I was thumbing through some of my highlights in the book last week and saw this quote and it has been in my head non-stop. In my own life, I have experienced numerous times where I have been motivated by recognition and I have wanted to get involved with something because I wanted to be seen actively engaging with what I thought looked impressive. Quite frequently I have made decisions that sounded good and sounded impressive even when I knew the thing I was choosing was not a good fit for me or not I wanted or would bring me the most value. For much of my life, I have tried to impress people, but I have not been willing to put in the work to be truly impressive.

 

I have been afraid to work really hard on something and either fail at that thing or to just not like where I end up. I have had great ideas of things I could do to make an impact, and then I have been afraid to get engaged and going with those things because I was afraid that the time commitment would be too much or that I would have to put in too much effort to try to convince other people that what I was doing was important.

 

In all of the examples above, I have been worried about my own ego and my first thought has often been, “how can I impress other people without having to try too hard and without having to put myself in a risky position?” What I should have been asking the entire time has nothing to do with other people’s perception of me or with being impressive at all. What I should have been asking is, “where is there a gap or a great need in our society, and is there something I can do to help make that better?” The focus here is not on identifying an area that needs improvement for the glory of being the one to step in and save everyone, but instead, the focus is on living purposefully and using our time, energy, good health, and other resources to make a positive impact on the world. In this way, being impressive is not a goal but an byproduct of doing meaningful work and engaging positively in society.

 

If we set out to be impressive, we will likely do less and feel more stressed about who we are and where we find ourselves. If instead we set out to help alleviate the pain, suffering, and shortcomings of our society, we will end up doing more impressive things and becoming a more impressive person overall. In the end, impressing others has nothing to do with becoming an impressive person or doing meaningful work. Impressing others is really about boosting our ego, and is short lived. To really be happy with oneself and to know that one is making a difference, one must set out to do meaningful things to help others rather than oneself.