At the Bahnhof I headed toward my favourite salad bar. Located in a renovated wing of the station, one must first walk through a small corridor and a foyer, and as I did so, the smell struck a blow like an invisible acidic wave assaulting my sinuses: sour piss and stale sweat. A moment later I spotted the homeless man: sitting, back to the outer wall of a janitor’s closet, knees bent toward chest, hands holding a weathered toque, rubbing the forest green fabric between thumb and forefinger, muttering, right eye twitching with an uncontrollable tic, scuffed Crocs sticking out from baggy rags of pants like a clown’s oversized novelty shoes, overcoat askew, greasy thick black and gray hair ringing a bald scalp, draped over shoulders.
A shawl woven of rotten ocean kelp.
An aquatic creature recently thrown from the bowels of the sea; a sad caricature of a fallen Poseidon, trident rusted and broken.
‘Ich hätte gerne ein Chicken Fitness, ohne Tomaten’.
The order takes a minute. So I stare. I can’t help it.
He continues muttering to himself, to his beaten hat, which he grips like a toddler would a comfort blanket. Every so often he takes the hat and presses the mottled fabric to his twitching right eye. Is it weeping from infection or from emotional distress? He catches my stare and I look away, ashamed. I pretend to be reading the menu in the window which separates the two of us, the menu of assorted nutrients and calories paired to assorted prices. And what is in his bags? Will he eat today?
I stare again: empathy (or pity?), and more shame. Empathy at this fallen god, who in another life would stand regally with his trim, elegant stature, jet black hair curled in satin rings upon his shoulders, crown atop a clear head, sane mind. Shame that I stand and he sits; I buy and he begs; I, who look through this window into his world, backdropped by the outer wall of a closet of mop buckets and detergents. And the smell! Shame at the sickness I feel. Utterly sick to my stomach I must cover my face. Shame at the knowledge that all I want to do his help this man, but cannot step through the piss and sweat, cannot overcome my basest instincts of revulsion, cannot step outside myself, prevented by an inner barrier as transparent, yet tangible, as the window separating our two fates.
What a sad juxtaposition, a tragic irony, a cruel cosmic joke: a filthy homeless man seeking refuge at the threshold of a janitor’s closet, adjacent a bistro of fine salads and dressings and bread, a menu of nutrients and accompanying prices; our eyes meet and my world crashes – we are the same, he and I. I know it. And all I want to do in that moment is help him. But the smell…..and my shame…..
The realisation, deeper and more profound, more real, than any cold argument or poetic description found in a book, that there is no meaningful difference between me and him. That my security rests solely on the cards dealt to me by an indifferent cosmic dealer.
And I can only imagine this man’s suffering.
Bag in hand, I walk past. Offering nothing but these secret thoughts. My haughty neglect eventually feeding my self-loathing.
A stronger will would have done something; and yet, right action begins with awareness; perhaps I am not a lost cause.
In moral philosophy there is an argument that those entities worthy of moral consideration are those capable of suffering. It seems to me that we have failed this man, and millions like him. What affected me perhaps most in this experience was a deep understanding that the amount of suffering, the sum total of pain in this world is quite literally grotesque, and we as active accessories to this crime should feel ashamed at our complicity, at walking past with bags of food in hand. Once one realises this, internalises this, there seems no recourse to ignore this; as a moral person, how can I worry about the well-being of my friends and family, of myself, without risking severe hypocrisy and loss of self-respect by not only ignoring the suffering of others, but actively contributing to it.
And I do contribute to the sum total of suffering in this world! And chances are most of us do as well. Out of sight, out of mind, is ethically indefensible. Consider the suffering experienced by sentient animals in the slave-trade called industrial farming, the meat industry, the dairy and poultry enterprises. Can I maintain my ethical integrity by maintaining the intolerable prospect of causing another human harm while simultaneously actively contributing to the incalculable suffering of an incalculable number of sentient creatures?
So what is my responsibility? How can I be responsible? Open questions open to debate, but not open to being ignored. If we spend next to no time considering our ethical place in this universe then we shirk our responsibility. In so doing, we cannot expect at some future point, when we ourselves are in need of ethical consideration, to be taken any more seriously than we have taken our current responsibilities.