The ways things conspire to bring forth small epiphanies...
Yesterday, I get a call from my former partner, who tells me that my son has fallen at the park and needs to go to the hospital. The park is nearby, so I go and pick him up from her. As I'm walking toward Dundas Street, I realise that in my haste I forgot my buss pass. A streetcar approaches, and the hospital is just two stops away. My son says that he hopes the driver will let us on anyway.
He does, without fare, and he takes us over to the hospital. We arrive, and sit down with a group of other people - there are four people ahead of us. My son is still sobbing and screaming. Everyone ahead of us goes into triage and comes out, except for a man, dressed as a woman, who tells us to take their place. I say, "are you certain?", and he replies that "it's fine, I'm alright."
So we go in, get registered, and he is behind us. The other two ahead of us are there for an eye problem, and to get a broken wrist checked again. As we are waiting, the man who had graciously offered up his place in Emergency for my son is ushered in and seen immediately. I note the irony.
We are finally sent in to see the doctor, and I am placed across from one of the people who had gone before my son. It turns out that the only reason he is there is that he wanted a second opinion on something that wasn't really bothering him at that time, and to which the emergency doctor basically told him to go back to his physician because there was nothing to do, no emergency.
So you can see how one's thoughts would naturally to the idea of how we, here in Toronto, treat each other (I'm not going to extend this to anywhere else, although I'm pretty sure it's similar) and how supremely bizarre it is. The person most in need of assistance is the only one who offers to switch places with my son.
Now I am sure some of you who read this are thinking, "why should they switch places with a little boy who is crying? They got there first!" But what I am asking is, why is that instinct so prevalent, that this other person, in that moment of compassion, feels utterly compelled to suppress it?
We see this all the time - how often have I sat on a streetcar as a pregnant women steps on, and no one offers her a seat, until I, who prefers to sit near the back, offers. Or that the people who usually offer to stand are themselves old and infirm? And why is there a peculiar universality to this suppression of compassion?
One of my favourite "academic" bloggers, Ads Without Products, has written recently around a similar strain, which turn around mindfulness and compassion.
His first piece, which happens to be the more recent one, discusses Raymond Carver. I haven't read any Carver, so I am just going to note a peculiar aspect of my own reaction to that post- the literary critic in me agrees with Ads that the revised version of Carver's story is the better one, but...given my experience last night, there is something about the parents' encounter with the baker, that exposure of the petty injustices we all perform for the sake of our own "skull-sized kingdoms", as David Foster Wallace puts it in a quote from the latter.
But here's the thing - the baker didn't know the boy had died. He saw his own labour evaporate on the whims of some bourgeois couple, and it spurred him to action, to call, to vent. The good thing, and the problem with the original ending of the story is that it settles on the basic decency of people to change their perspectives when confronted with the truth.
The people in emergency yesterday sitting next to a screaming child, and the people on the streetcar in front of the pregnant woman who stare into their Tom Clancy novel or change the song on their iPod, they did know, didn't they? And I ask you why your first response is to think "why shouldn't they go first?"
This all ties together in my sleep-deprived mind to Toronto's mayoralty race, and the fact that the current leader is the right-wing populist Rob Ford. In him and his popularity I see the general mood of the city, one which, when pollsters ask them about what's important, they say "taxes and city finances", I think what they really mean is something closer to "I want a guy who doesn't make me feel guilty about keeping my seat on the bus".
Sound nuts? Hear me out. Last year, Toronto experienced a long, drawn-out garbage strike, the 2nd since I've lived here. By my own reckoning, the city was vastly more prepared this time to starve out the union. Local parks that got pretty disgusting last time had their garbage mysteriously picked up, and there was an overall efficiency and orderliness to the strike that was in stark contrast to the rotting piles of garbage of the last strike.
But the anger around the 2nd strike was far greater. Forced to collect their own garbage, to be responsible for a task usually left to others, Torontonians acted with an irrational, universal rage that I cannot recall ever seeing before.
City garbage collectors became pariahs (they were not the only workers on strike, but they were the near-total focus of the rage). Our current mayor, David Miller, decided not to run again. The rage was so great that one felt that it was existential, that people were, as the old saw goes, mad as hell and not taking it anymore.
But what, or who, were they mad at? The garbage collectors, or more accurately, their benefits. What most of it centered around was the ostensibly appalling idea that garbage collectors might have dignity, and history has allowed them to fight for it through collective bargaining. That people would prefer see private garbage collection to keep their taxes low is a ominous, as well as All the vile, nasty things people said about the people who collect their waste for them as they attempted to stave off further roll backs because those same people don't want to believe that their taxes go to anything but lavish lunches and cushy jobs.
Toronto is becoming more mean-spirited, and this new mean Toronto wants Rob Ford as its standard bearer.
This I believe is the key to the fact that the people least in need to treatment felt perhaps most justified in walking past a screaming child, a look of pity in their mouths, but with the self-righteous countenance of the consumer everywhere else. The triumph of Rob Ford is the triumph of a citizenry no longer experiencing a political or ethical relationship with their peers, only an economic one.
But why I don't end with this, but with a reminder of the man who let my son go first, is that, like Carver, I recognize the need to unceasingly push back, even though there seems less and less point. The literary quality of indeterminacy is matched only by its insufficiency in everyday life.
To supress the urge to be mindful, to be compassionate in those most banal of situations, is to accept that the uselessness of modern life also entails that we behave inhumanly. It is also to recognize that mean-spiritedneess has a place, just perhap not on the political stage (I say this because I am also one of the nastiest people I know)
Such is the reality of my own skull-sized kingdom.