The Absurd Society

This morning, one of Peace House Community’s members stopped by to say hi. He hadn’t been here for a few months, and I was glad to see him. When I asked how he was doing, he smiled, said, “I’m doing alright”, and held up his hands to show me that all his fingers had been amputated this winter because of frostbite. I expressed sorrow at his situation, but he continued smiling and said, “Oh, you know how it is being homeless. This happens. But I’ve learned how to sign my name. I can use a fork now.” After a few more minutes of chatting he left to get on with his day, and I came back inside to try to make sense of what I had just seen and heard.

Every winter, people lose anything from their fingers to their lives because one of the richest states in the richest country in the world can’t figure out how to pay for proper housing. We’re more comfortable watching some people suffer so that others can live luxurious lives than we are with solving this problem.

As someone whose wife has Amazon Prime, and who can get almost anything they want without leaving their living room, I am one of the ones with a luxurious life. I don’t usually think of myself that way, but if I’m honest, my life is so soft and easy that living almost anywhere else or at any other point in history would probably kill me within a year because of all the effort I would have to put into just getting food and water for the day.

Because I’m so used to having it easy, I complain when the server is slow bringing my food at a restaurant, or when I get stuck behind someone who wants to write a check to pay for their groceries. In my saner moments, I ask what sort of self-centered jerk I am to complain about my troubles when others face life and death struggles on my doorstep.

At the same time, I have to shake my head at the society that produced the conversation I had with my friend. How bad have things gotten that, in the United States, someone accepts losing his fingers as something he should expect? And how ridiculous is it that this happens every year? It’s not like winter sneaks up on us. We know it is coming. We know what sub-zero temperatures do to people who don’t have adequate clothing or a warm place to stay. Each year Hennepin County publishes a list of “warming sites” to let people know where to go to avoid hypothermia and frostbite. But each year we need those sites because we are willing to not house or clothe people properly. We accept that “civilized” and “advanced” civilizations function by forcing those without resources to hop from one spot to another in order to stay warm and to get enough to eat. And each year people die because this is the best we can do.

Part of me wants to yell, “We can do better than this,” but part of me also says, “No, we can’t.” As much as we like to think we can solve any problem, and that innovation is the key, we keep demonstrating that we don’t have the intelligence, imagination, or the morality needed to create a functioning society. No matter what we do, we get in our own way. Unfortunately, some people have to pay a horrible price for our failings. If we can’t fix the problems, maybe we can at least be honest about our part in creating them.

* I would be more explicit but this is a family publication. Insert whatever word you think is appropriate.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.