There’s an interesting incident near the end of David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest that says a lot about how humans treat each other. It’s the story of Barry Loach, the head trainer at Enfield Tennis Academy. Earlier, Barry’s older brother had felt called to be a priest and was studying at a Jesuit seminary. However, near the end of his studies the brother “suffered at age twenty-five a sudden and dire spiritual decline in which his basic faith in the innate indwelling goodness of men like spontaneously combusted and disappeared.” He stopped going to classes and sat all day in his room.
Barry tried to talk his brother out of his malaise, which stemmed from the ingratitude of the homeless and drug addicted people he had served during his practicum in downtown Boston and from the lack of compassion for the homeless on the part of the general population. Finally, the despondent seminary student challenged Barry “to not shower or change clothes for a while and make himself look homeless and disreputable and louse-ridden and clearly in need of basic human charity, and to stand out in front of the Park Street T-station on the edge of the Boston Common…and for Barry Loach to hold out his unclean hand and instead of stemming change simply ask passersby to touch him.”
Barry accepts the challenge and soon is standing with the panhandlers, asking passerby, “Touch me, just touch me, please.” Day after day, no one is willing to make skin-to-skin contact, though they do toss money his way. In fact, asking for human contact proves fairly lucrative, though those who drop change in his hand do so with “spastic delicacy…and they rarely broke stride or even made eye-contact as they tossed alms B.L.’s way, much less ever getting their hand anywhere close to contact with B.L.’s disreputable hand.”
I won’t describe what eventually rescues Barry from this challenge gone awry. I’d like to reflect on it a bit, though; it seems to be a parable for our times. It’s not that disgust is unique to modern societies–at least some researchers regard it as one of the basic human emotions and have explored both its neural foundations and adaptive significance (see for example the Wikipedia article on the topic). Barry deliberately made himself repulsive, so it’s not surprising that people shied away. What made this a story of modern times is that the situation could continue week after week, month after month, with no one offering anything more than monetary assistance.
In most traditional societies, the community would have some way to identify the problem troubling the person (whether it is called illness, demon possession, witchcraft, or whatever) and some strategy to offer an appropriate remedy. Though such mechanisms are present in modern societies, we’ve become so isolated from each other, so preoccupied with our own concerns, and so respectful of individual choice that it’s become easy for hundreds of people a day to walk past a troubled person with no one offering more than pocket change by way of assistance.
What can change this? I’d like to suggest that we older adults can be the ones to start turning things around. Most of us have more time on our hands than average, and I’d like to believe that we are also more observant than most about what is happening around us and more concerned about the welfare of others. Most of us are probably aware of somebody–maybe many somebodies–who are like Barry, just wanting to be noticed and treated like they are of worth. What would it be like if we made eye contact with someone like that when we had an opportunity? What if we smiled at them or greeted them or stopped and chatted with them? I’m not suggesting that anybody risks personal safety to do so. In my experience, though, the worst that happens when I do this is that I become a little uncomfortable, am asked for money, or I spend more time with the person than I anticipated doing. What’s so bad about any of those?
We older adults have the opportunity to affirm the humanity and dignity of those who have been treated as worthless for so long that many of them have started to believe it. Let’s make a difference to the least and lost in the communities where we live. Let’s treat all God’s children as precious.