On Slow Motion Pain

We first noticed Sad Guy as we walked into the grocery store. Sitting on a bench outside the store, he wore a collared shirt tucked neatly into blue jeans that funneled straight down into a pair of brown work boots. He wore his hair cropped close and had a beard. We didn’t call him Sad Guy at the time, but, over the following weeks and months, that was the name we gave him.

The first time we saw him, he simply sat on the bench and stared into space. Really, the first time, there was nothing remarkable about the scene. He may have had a lunch bag with him, I can’t remember. Sad Guy looked as if he was waiting for a ride, but there was something that caught your attention. A vacancy. A stare that was too complete. A motionless that did anything but reflect peace.

We never stayed around to find out, but the ride Sad Guy was waiting for never appeared. Over the coming weeks and months, we saw Sad Guy all over our neighborhood. Always fairly well dressed, but always wearing the same outfit. Always staring, never talking or interacting. First we saw him on a different bench. Then in the park. Then in the mall food court. Over time, the only perceptible change was a growing weariness in his expression, as well as a pronounced weathering of his complexion. The same pressured look in his eyes never left.

We took to calling him Sad Guy, not out of an intention to belittle, but, rather, as an acknowledgement of the scene unfolding in front of us, one frame of pain at a time. We never talked to the man. Never asked him how he was or if he needed help, and, then, one day he was not there. We never saw Sad Guy again. In positive moments, we wondered if he finally got help. In more realistic moments, we imagined less rosy scenarios.

Driving to work two years later, I noticed a young, bright-eyed teenage girl hanging out with a rough group in a park I routinely passed. The park was a gathering place for the homeless and drug addicts. She stood out because she was so obviously new to the scene, with a fresh face and expressive eyes. As I waited at the red light, I looked at her and the group seated with her, and, even though she could not, I saw her future. It crossed my mind to roll down my window and talk to her, tell her she didn’t belong here, implore her to escape before it was too late. My romantic notions aside, it was probably already too late.

Over the next year, I watched the young girl become Sad Girl. Dirty hair, filthy clothes, and, where her bright eyes were, sunken, dead eyes. She passed my car routinely with her hand-scratched sign for money as I sat at the light during my morning commute. I never rolled down my window, but every time a pang of guilt fired through me.

Contact with the homeless and drug addicts is not unique in the big city. Whenever the topic comes up in social gatherings, the usual hand-wringing occurs, with pained murmurings about mental health and the impossibility of changing or helping the situation. The conversation is so practiced, so robotic even, I can’t help but wonder if its utterance is a psychic abdication of the responsibility to do something, anything.

In my head, I know there are some human miseries that no amount of charity, hand-outs, hand-ups, or help will solve. In exchange for a free and open society, do we accept as part of the bargain that there will be losers? Those with problems and addictions, of no fault of their own, of no moral failing, that will push them to the periphery of existence. Relegated to lonely benches and dirty parks, hoping for passersby to throw change in pity for food or the next fix.

With most bargains, most compromises, one can acknowledge the losses but rationalize them by focusing on the gains. I’m not sure what possible gain offsets Sad Guy and Sad Girl, and it feels like a moral failure simply to entertain the mental exercise.

I never talked to either of them. I never offered help, never considered the possibility of doing so, despite contemplating their conditions often. And I’m not alone. Considering that, maybe the losses in our bargain are greater than we think.

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