I want to share an excerpt from my journal, 1996, the year I was living in São Paulo, Brazil.
Tuesday, 16 April
This morning on my way to work, I passed a ratty old mattress with four small children and a kitten sleeping on it. A few feet more lay another child on the sidewalk, pillowing his head on the bottom curb of the concrete bridge. Once in a while a middle-aged man will ask for money, but mainly it’s children and a few old people or families. It breaks my heart to see the abandoned children.
On Saturday night we were returning home from a birthday party, and five children were asleep on the same mattress. Another child called me “aunt” and asked for the balloon I was carrying. I always think of [my little sister] Roo, what her life is like compared to these children. How would she survive here? We seldom see little girls on the streets, unless they’re with a homeless mother. I don’t know if there are genuinely fewer, or they simply don’t last as long.
Wednesday, 17 April
It is raining today. This morning I passed the children on the mattress, only two today. They had cut the top and crawled between the filling and the cover to keep warm. Most stretch their t-shirts over their heads, and tuck their knees under their chins, but their feet and lower legs still hang out. São Paulo can be really cold to someone used to the heat. Even I am really cold today.
I don’t know the history of homelessness in São Paulo, but every day in 1996 I waded to my knees in homeless men, women, and children. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I always tried to carry a little at the ready, so I had something to give away, like squeezing an eye dropper into the Grand Canyon. It was not a safe city, and I traveled the streets schooling my face to look bland and defended, though the effect may have been rather spoiled by the unshed tears that often glittered in my eyes. The suffering ate at me, a creeping powerlessness and sense of failure that I’ve never quite shaken.
São Paulo and 1996 are long ago and far away, so it would be tempting to chalk it up to history and “otherness,” but a few years ago a sweet elderly friend told me of her fifteen years volunteering as a genealogy instructor in the Utah State Prison. This dear, intrepid woman had a wealth of relationships with prisoners, including one who called himself, “Dumpster Boy.” One day she asked him why.
When he was a kid his parents got divorced, he said, and when they drove away, they left him behind to fend for himself. He found his way to Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City where the homeless sort of took him in, teaching him how to survive.
“Barbarian” is actually an onomatopoeic word from the ancient Greeks who looked at those pesky foreigners with their funny foreign languages, and instead of saying “Blah blah blah” or “It’s all Greek to me,” like civilized people, they said, “bar bar bar” which evolved into bárbaros, referring to anyone stubbornly and linguistically not Greek. Later the multiculturally sensitive Romans, who loved borrowing from the Greeks, picked up the same habit, tweaking the word to barbaria in Latin, meaning anyone stupid enough not to be Greek or Roman. The barbarians were born.
Today the word “barbarian” has evolved to mean anyone brutally uncivilized, but at its heart, it is a word of classification and discarding. I’d love to scream “Barbarian!” at Dumpster Boy’s parents, and whoever left hordes of children to starve on the streets of São Paulo. It’s very nice of them to offer me a solid boogeyman so I can jump on my soapbox and point my most self-righteous finger at faceless monsters I would never recognize on the street. But here I am classifying and discarding just like the Greeks and Romans, so maybe I need to back up and think about what little I do know.
My Portuguese wasn’t good enough to sit and talk to the children on the mattress, so I don’t know their specific stories, but I was in Brazil long enough to guess that a preponderance of their tragedies probably had roots in some adult’s sex, alcohol or drug addiction. What about Dumpster Boy? I have no idea what caused those parents to divorce, and I am certainly in no position to judge anyone, but I do know two things. First, divorce ravages everyone, especially children who, through no fault of their own, have their very foundations stripped out from under their tender, forming feet. The second is rather uglier: both of those parents were so self-absorbed that neither could spare a seat in the car for their son.
Addiction, Divorce, Selfishness spoken with a heavy and extreme accents, but if we stop to really listen, we get past the accent and recognize languages we all know in one way or another. No one is safe or immune.
If we were to fill a stadium with good, honorable people and ask for a raise of hands from every soul whose person, family or loved ones have been somehow scraped by substance abuse or porn addiction, I would be surprised if the response wasn’t nearly universal. Throw addiction into the pot, and ghost pepper with no-fault divorce, and we see how legally easy it is for a man to throw away his wife of twenty years, to make room for a younger model, or for a woman to break the bonds of convention in search of more money or admiration. Of course, this is not the sole cause of divorce, but even the most vapid must admit that everywhere we turn from social media to the mall the overwhelming message is “Me ME ME!!”
What does it mean to be brutally uncivilized anyway? Who are the barbarians?
Every culture in the world has a couple of things in common: a Great Flood story, and some version of the Golden Rule, which is that bit about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the Christian version of the Flood story, people were so busy not living the Golden Rule, that God deemed them brutally and irredeemably uncivilized and wiped them from the face of the earth. It’s a terrifying story, really, and I’ve never understood how a tale involving a lone family floating through a sea of bloated, putrefying corpses managed to end up on nursery wallpaper and bedside lamps. Maybe it’s the rainbow and the two darling giraffes, and the sweet little old man with the Santa beard. That’s the cute part of the story, the one we like to tell ourselves and our children. Nobody likes to remember that Noah himself was so horrifically traumatized that God promised him never to drown the earth again, no matter how evil it got, and painted the sky as a symbol of that covenant.
It’s fun to mock the ancient Greeks and Romans for their unapologetic arrogance, calling anyone different barbarians, especially the Romans who ran around conquering lands and rounding up slaves, demonstrating their callousness to their fellow human beings. But I’m wondering if we are not equally blind.
Appalling truths are great for shock value, but I was swimming through the homeless for a year, and when I left Brazil, the bits of money I’d spread as I walked through the city hadn’t changed their numbers by even one person, short or tall. Several years later I returned and discovered that many someones with more power had improved the situation tremendously, for which I am truly grateful.
We are unnerved by the story of Dumpster Boy because most of us don’t speak Selfishness well enough to leave our children to survive in the streets. But it is also true that, apart from a few outliers, most people will not drop everything to singlehandedly rally the troops to open a school for the disadvantaged, or create groundbreaking mental health programs for the homeless. I am one of those ordinary folk, wading through the suffering, with nothing but an eye dropper to fill the Grand Canyon. If Noah came by for a visit, would he call me barbarian for not offering others the same help I require for myself?
To be defined as a civilization, a people must have reached an advanced stage of social, cultural, and organizational development. We highly advanced, modern humans prove we are not barbarians by proudly pointing to Oxford University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre. Truly we have much that is grand and impressive, but poor traumatized Noah might say, “That’s nice,” and then begin asking a different set of questions. “How do you treat the server who is slow with your order? Do you take the time to listen to your children? Are you kind to your spouse who may not deserve it today?” Then he would turn to me with his clear, intelligent eyes, “What did you learn from the children on the mattress?”
I am quiet and shy, and would never make much of an activist. It’s likely I will never be responsible for great, sweeping social change, but every day those children on the mattress remind me to keep my eye dropper clean and ready. I have to make peace, knowing I will never fill the world’s Grand Canyon of despair, but eye drops can clear my vision, giving me eyes to see my fellow human souls for what they are, sons and daughters of God, equal, and beloved. Noah asks good questions, born of long days and nights spent listening as the corpses of his neighbors gently bumped the hull of his ark.