Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Vagabond of Tragedy and Triumph

Something important happened to me tonight.

On the train home, an old black man with patchy gray hair was slumped pathetically across the seats in clear view of where I sat. With a torn and dirty jacket draped over his shoulders, he cradled his head in his hands, propped up on the armrest while his legs stretched out to the seat opposite him.

He was not in good shape. He was trembling slightly, and his long yellowing fingernails tapped against the armrest. Every couple of minutes, he would lean over slightly and spit a thin stream of vomit onto the floor of the train. Once when he shifted, the left arm of his jacket fell down into the puddle.

His unwashed, tattered appearance suggested he was riding the train more for the shelter than to go anywhere in particular. Anything looks more comfortable than his awkward position across those seats, but I suppose the concrete must get awfully cold and hard after a while.

I've never been one to reach out and help strangers whose lives have fallen apart, even when all they ask of me is a dollar for some food. I once felt at least a little bit of empathy for them. Mostly, though, what I felt was helpless.

Making one person's day slightly less horrific just isn't a very good use of my money, time, or emotional energy. To be mumbling paranoid nonsense on a street corner while you slowly starve and freeze is to live a life so shattered that picking up any one of the pieces will not restore wholeness. My dollar will not save anyone, and, more saliently to me, will not bring an end to the conditions that allow such misery to exist in the first place. I do believe that I can bring an end to those conditions, but not by helping any individual person in misery. So I've learned to feel very little at all when I pass them without more than a brief glance.

But I was seated beside him for several minutes, so I could not walk past. I probably could have ignored him anyway if I'd chosen, but for some reason, this time I engaged my thoughts and emotions. I guess I was curious. I wondered what it might be like to be inside his head.

And this is when the important thing happened. As soon as I felt the first pang of empathy, I imagined the world I was trying to create. I felt suffering with him (tiny though  mine was), and immediately, automatically, I envisioned a future free of suffering. It wasn't so much like flicking a switch as like being the flicked switch. I did not participate deliberatively in this event.

It was familiar to feel responsible for his pain, and for all the pain in the world. I've long been wired that way. Yet I felt neither helpless, nor guilty, nor even charitable confronting the experience. I just knew, more plainly and clearly than I ever have, that the future of humanity will not be so ugly as that present moment in which a tragic old man failed to sleep above a growing puddle of vomit.

And simultaneously I knew that it would not be that way because I would not let it. On one side was the man on the train, on the other the salvation of all sentient beings, and bridging the two states of affairs was a solid progression of cause and effect consisting of precisely the kinds of actions I take every day.

There's a CFAR unit called "propagating urges" in which students learn to take their desires to accomplish long-term goals and use them to fuel motivation for the individual actions required to accomplish those goals. For instance, I might propagate the urge to grade all 70 essays so I can successfully complete my degree by imagining receiving my diploma every time I reach for a new page.

I think I may not need to propagate urges when it comes to my work anymore. The drudgery of carrying out the kind of altruism I consider maximally effective is saving the world. It's suddenly become a simple fact of my life. The world will be saved, and I will save it.