Popping the Bubble

There’s something so visceral about how we turn away from people who are not as well off as we are. We make all kinds of excuses for why we have a superiority complex, citing a lack of work ethic in the other party or worse, inherent intellectual advantage. But if I believed that I wouldn’t be getting intense waves of guilt each time I choose not to look at someone who is asking for change. What’s wrong with people? How come, even when I know that I want to do everything I can to help the world be a better place, I’m still subject to this kind of complicit behavior? Does it make me a hypocrite? I tell myself that I’ll pay it back someday when I’m well off as a sort of reassurance. But what if I’m never well off? Would I keep pushing it off forever?

It’s easy to blame things on a system that keeps the poor in poverty or on personal circumstance, thus pushing someone else’s condition off of my own plate. But ultimately the root causes of this negligence stem mostly from our own psyche. First, altruism is programmed because we expect reciprocity. As social beings, we are kind and generous to each other as an investment in ourselves– surely someone we’ve helped will be able to give back to us in the future. However, if you’re unlikely to ever encounter the person again or have no reason to believe they will have the means to give back to you, instinct tells you to leave them in the dust and let them fend for themselves. I’ve always firmly believed in the benevolence of people and their inherent goodness, so this is a very daunting reality for me to come to terms with.

Second, consider the trolley problem. Would you pull a lever to kill one person while saving five? Or would you let the five die because it’s none of your business? The core question here is one of responsibility: I had nothing to do with it in the first place, and so I will have nothing to do with it now. This is the argument that many people who choose not to interfere give to justify their counterintuitive response. Technically, it’s better to just let the five die due to factors out of your control instead of being responsible for the death of the one, as awful as that sounds. We don’t like to be arbiters of life and death– that’s why we have God to take the blame off our shoulders. Somehow, by helping out this person who is asking me for money or for food, I am now entangling myself in their ultimate success or demise. The thinking goes, “in case of the worst, best not to get involved in the first place.”

People have constructed entire bubbles of privilege to distract themselves from the reality of an economically diverse world. Hospitals, for example, are a place of safety and refuge for those who have the money to afford patient care. They stand as institutions of privilege and, most importantly, privacy. We want to maintain a front that only the best care is being given, and so we pick and choose who we can give care to in order to maintain the best image. Take one of the opening scenes from Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange, world famous neurosurgeon, is driving along and perusing possible cases to take. Instead of focusing primarily on saving lives, he is fixated on what will improve his name, avoiding patients with injuries that are too “risky”. While public hospitals and clinics do not have this kind of privilege due to their nature of being public, often they lack funding or the facilities that private hospitals do. This is even more true when it comes to education. Public schools, private schools, inner city vs. suburban, all provide different levels of schooling. For a hefty price, parents can invest in their children’s futures and immerse them in a world where everyone is as privileged as they are. This isn’t just paying for a private school education– even choosing where to live and settle down has major implications. Why don’t we let kids look at people asking for change? To preserve the bubble. Why do we ignore those around us who don’t behave the way we think “civilized” people do? To preserve the bubble. Everything is about preserving the version of reality that we’ve constructed, where we are the victors and anyone who is not as well off as we are have simply lost the game.

What do we do, then? Particularly with a shrinking world and a growing wealth gap, with hard evidence showing that there is an indisputable link between low socioeconomic status and slower development, how do we commit to breaking a vicious cycle before it’s too late? More pertinently, should we be more open with our money and be giving? That’s a matter of personal belief and values, but regardless of what you choose to do, we can’t continue to believe in a world where we are the “winners” and others are the losers. Investments in societal health are also investments in ourselves and our communities. We need to give each other the chance to become productive, to succeed and contribute in their own ways, and that starts with being able to acknowledge their existence. We can also try to build institutions that break down as opposed to building walls. Just as the Tripod program in the Deaf community seeks to educate both deaf and hearing children together in a bicultural (English and sign) environment, educational and medical facilities that are just as open and diverse should be made available. This isn’t easy­– when people have the means, they will tend to opt for private schools or hospitals because they expect better service. Institutions also have a tendency to become more privileged as they become more selective. A public school that provides a great education with great resources will probably only get more wealthy as space runs out, since at that point name value will incentivize them to pluck the students who are best posed to succeed as opposed to those who stand to gain the most.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to solve this problem. One solution is to embed the purpose of the school or the service-program in the constitution. That way there is a clear mission statement that compels the administration to adhere to a set of values in patient, subject, or student care and selection. Another possibility is to specifically target areas of low privilege and provide the means necessary to help those people access these facilities. For example, a school for inner city children that provides free transportation or reduced-cost lunches, or psychiatric facilities in rural areas // through online mediums that would allow for anonymity particularly in small towns.  Regardless of the means, the through line is effort and community building. ­If you are acknowledging your privilege and stepping beyond the bubble, you are doing a good thing.

Of course, any of these ideas heavily depend on a financial backer with a large if not unlimited pool of resources at hand and ready to dish out to the cause. The government is unlikely to make such investments, since politicians too live in an even smaller bubble of privilege. But that isn’t to discourage any and all efforts to make the world a better place for more people! We each have a means of communication, and if nothing else, we can spread a message or lend an ear. You can’t give up before the game has even started!

So to recap, I’m going to do my best to be more considerate and immerse myself in the reality of socioeconomic diversity. I might not always have change to give, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do. Giving back comes in many forms, not the least of which is the pledge to start or maintain institutions that offer services to the underprivileged and give back to a community. I might not expect reciprocity, but on net, it’s a tiny cost in exchange for huge potential gain.

All the Ships

I walked into an AA meeting holding a cup of coffee.

It hit me as I was opening the door to the cozy room that this might have been interpreted as a sort of flippant irony– the fact that I was entering a space reserved for those trying to get over a substance addiction while taking a brain-altering substance myself. All sorts of scenarios played out in my head, including being called out, kicked out, or judged silently, which was almost the worst of them all. Normally this kind of anxiety would have been enough to turn me around and give me ample impetus to get the hell out of there. But, since this was the first time I had ever been to an AA meeting, I recognized it was probably my fear of the unknown, and not the actual act of drinking coffee, that was inducing my paranoia.

I’ve had drinks before but not frequently, and I have never felt like my drinking was out of my control. This much I knew about myself; I was at the meeting solely as a listener. However, I also knew that this didn’t by any means give me the moral high ground. Everyone is dependent on something to get them through dark times, be it religion, sex, video games, etc. It just so happens that some comforts can inflict greater harm than others. Alcohol is one of these comforts.

It was a small meeting, with five people at peak attendance. That set me slightly on edge; I had banked on there being more attendees so as to make my presence inconspicuous.

One member, Eric (name changed for anonymity), took charge as facilitator and gave us a rundown of how things would go. He would give an opening statement, and then we would be given a chance to speak to our own experience with substance abuse. He asked if we had any announcements to make. We didn’t.

Eric’s opening statement was lucid and encouraging. Having been to countless AA meetings since he first stopped drinking over a decade ago, he was a well of resources, adages, and reassurance. Like many who find themselves at the mercy of alcohol, Eric’s drinking began with family. He felt trapped in his home, and it didn’t help that other members of his family had already set an example by being alcoholics themselves. When he finally sought help and rehab, he made AA a cornerstone of his recovery by resolving to go to a meeting a day. By being a part of this community, learning that he wasn’t alone, and picking up technique after technique from peers, Eric built himself back up from the ground. This is not a success story, he stressed. Alcoholism is something you have to fight every day because the moment you give in to it, you lose everything you built up from the ground. “It’s like ships”, he said. “The first day you go to AA, you have a life raft. After a month, you have a canoe. After a year, you have a speedboat. After ten years, you have a yacht. But no matter what you have, remember that one big wave can take everything away.”

Ten years. People quit their jobs if they don’t think they’ll be promoted within a year. People give up on dreams of becoming famous or of starting their own business if they don’t see a glimmer of hope within the first six-months. To work on who you are every second of every day for over a decade takes more effort and resilience than almost anyone can imagine. That’s more than half of my lifetime.

When I walk into a grocery store, I do not need to consciously keep myself from wandering into the alcohol section. When my friends invite me out, I do not need to turn them down because I’m scared that I might cave in to a drink. My lifestyle is a privilege, and it is so easy to forget how lucky I am to not be going through something like what Eric has described.

After the opening statement, we went around the room and offered our own insights and anecdotes. I passed on my turn to speak, since I did not have anything to say. Once everyone had shared in some way or another, we filled out the rest of the hour session with a short, silent meditation, which contrasted with the vocal aspect of the meeting. I used that time to reflect on all the ships I had built myself – my confidence, my empathy, my friendships – all of which require patience, deliberate effort, and persistence to keep intact. I felt a life energy coursing in the air as we sat, drawing us closer with some kind of unconscious magnetism. We were all on a journey, I realized. A rocky odyssey across an ocean filled with high stakes and great rewards, and we were all anxious. But I also felt something else that wasn’t anxiety. I struggled to name that feeling, even as we finished the session with the serenity prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

As I walked out of the room and back into the smoky indifference of New York City, I finally put a name to what it was I was feeling. It was gratitude. Gratitude that I was granted this experience and wisdom despite walking in holding a cup of coffee, but also for something bigger. In a world characterized by stigma and prejudice, it is inspiring that we are able to find communities that encourage us to be better and work for who we are. It can be hard, especially if what it is you want to change was out of your control in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. I’m grateful to know that, no matter where I am, I can stick my head up above deck on my little sailboat and see that there is an entire fleet sailing beside me.

Running out of Time

There are moments that stick with you not because of how life changing they are, but because the later moments cast an illuminating light on them, revealing them to be moments of pure character. One such moment for me is the time I waited for days at recess in fourth grade for a girl to sit down and play checkers with me.

The day was as fair as my heart was young when it finally came time to say goodbye to the old, brick building I had known as Abby Kelly Foster Charter Public School. We had had an ice cream party that morning celebrating kids with perfect attendance, and naturally I was invited. Being a bad student as a concept didn’t really exist for me, and despite the ridiculously early time I had to wake up each morning as a nine-year-old, I trudged through the year without missing a single day. Someone else was supposed to be at the ice cream party too. Her name was Stephanie Smith. She was the same year as me but had only come to Abby Kelly that fall. With a bob cut, an oddly soothing voice that lacked the sharpness of immaturity, a smile that could cure any bodily ailment, and an openness that contrasted almost ironically with my reclusiveness, I was totally captivated from the moment we first crossed paths. Stephanie didn’t show up to the full-attendance ice cream party, but that was only a mild disappointment. The real challenge I faced that day wasn’t speaking to her, but rather asking her to sit down with me at recess and play me in a game of checkers, from which our love would blossom and we would date and kiss and get married.

Unfortunately for my ego, I had already waited for her on a wooden bench on the playground every day for the past week, without any significant progress. Scratch that. Without any progress. I watched her run with friends, laughing, all the while letting the feeling of melting wash over my chest. But today was different, I insisted. Today was the last day of school, so it was my absolute final chance to muster up the courage to ask her to play with me. A bold move considering I was barely even a blip on her radar.

I grew weary with anticipation in the hours between the ice cream party and the midday recess. My hands were sweating in the pockets of my uniform – khaki shorts – as I contemplated the moves I would make. Would I be red or black? Would I win or lose? What even are the official rules for checkers? Finally, as the first half of the day drew to a close, the teachers let the elementary schoolers – fourth graders were first – out for one last skirmish on the playground. I immediately went for my bench by the jungle gym. Sitting down, I inadvertently glanced at the monkey bars, which I could not complete despite my tiny weight. I looked away, suddenly conscious of my incompetence.

Here’s what I was going to say:

Me:      Hey. (I was embarrassed to say people’s names)
Her:     Hi.
Me:      It’s the last day of school, and I was just wondering, since we haven’t really talked much, if you wanted to play checkers with me?
Her:     Of course!

She sits down and we begin playing. She smiles a lot. I don’t smile back because I am convinced I have an ugly smile.

Me:      So tell me a little about yourself.
Her:     Well, – Insert life story –.
Me:      Wow, that’s so cool.
Her:     Yeah. How about you?
Me:      I’m pretty normal. I like riding my bike and playing video games. I love math and my favorite movie is called Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. It’s really funny. I do Kung Fu.
Her:     Woah.
Me:      It’s whatever. I play the piano and my birthday is in September and I have two twin sisters. Yeah.
Her:     That sounds really interesting!
Me:      Do you want to be my girlfriend?
Her:     Ok.

They hold hands and kiss. She stops running around with her friends and spends all her time with me, a fantasy that only confirms the possessive disposition men have toward women in relationships.

I was going over this conversation for the umpteenth time when I suddenly realized she was nowhere to be found. I checked all of her usual hangout spots with a sweep of my eyes, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. She probably wasn’t in school today. A wave of panic hit me before numbing into the sullen coldness of shock. Was that it? Had I missed my chance forever?

I waited and waited to be proven wrong, but with every passing second my fear was only further confirmed. Stephanie was gone. I hung my head and stroked the little cardboard box in the palm of my left hand. It was a tiny box of checkers, magnetic to stabilize the pieces, and it was looking about as small as I felt in that moment. I was so nervous that, like grabbing an elusive fish in a stream, I let the time slip right between my fingers. No amount of self-kicking would be able to put this one right.

I remember crying later that day at home, partly for what I would never have the chance to say, but mostly for what I did have the chance to say but never did. Years and years later, I felt that same kind of fear when I fell in love with another girl and came up against a ticking clock ­– a self-imposed timer to confess my feelings at the cast party of a show. Yeah, I never really said it. Again. But this time I was just a little bit closer. And we ended up dating for three years so I guess not all hope is lost, right?

My excursions to the bench that week in pursuit of love solidified me as a hopeless romantic. It reminds me of my soft-spoken, introverted, permissive nature despite all the faces I wear now as a friend, actor, brother, and sometimes therapist. But mostly, it teaches me about where I have room to grow. No matter who I am and what I believe, I need to more than anything be willing to take risks and let my heart ride out the tidal waves of adrenaline that life often incurs. I need to poke a little hole in the dam that I’ve constructed as a defense mechanism, allowing the river of emotion I hold in check the tiniest outlet from which to pour. And finally, I need to always be confident, knowing that no opportunity lasts forever, no blessing falls into your lap without you making an effort to seek it out. Everything is time sensitive.

It’s probably for the better that I didn’t get to know Stephanie very well. I didn’t have much to say to her, and my plan wasn’t by any means foolproof. Plus, early romances have an uncanny tendency to not work out in the end. But then again, I guess I’ll never know.