A few years ago my friend Brian told me that he had been feeling disconnected from the local poor. Since I work with the homeless, he asked if there was someone who might be able to take us out on the streets with them for a few nights. So we decided and took to the streets for a few nights, led by our friend Tomas who had lived outside for years. It was, for us, an immersion experience into his life and an opportunity to ask him to lead us and teach us. He was so excited to do it and instructed each of us only to bring a few things and no more than 5 bucks. The first morning he said that we would need to find our own squat to sleep. That was part of the experience and he was not going to just tell us where it would be safe or where he normally sleeps. As soon as we got started he informed us that we were unprepared and at least had to find some blankets. We went to a local ministry that works with homeless people and they gave us a couple. Not before they questioned us about being on the streets. I am pretty sure the lady didn’t believe us but it was getting weird and she finally just gave them to us. Tomas said we were far too clean to fit in but that we wouldn’t be for long. Since we knew that The Well, a ministry that I work with, had a meal called The Banquet every Thursday in Ybor we knew that we would be able to find some dinner that night so we put our minds and feet to finding a squat (a place to sleep). We found a few spots that seemed promising but at one we really liked I stepped in some poo and let’s just say there was some toilet paper nearby! Not dog doo-do! As I cleaned up Tomas told us how important it is to bury your poop. We could think of several reasons that this might be a good idea but in the end, his reasoning was that he wants God to be with him. What? “Yup, Deuteronomy 23:13-14 says : ‘...when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you...’ God doesn’t even hang around if there’s crap there!!” So on we went. We ended up finding a nice spot behind a manicured section of the interstate exit ramp.
We stashed our blankets and stuff in the bushes and kept walking around the city. As we continued walking around the city our friend and guide asked us what we would grab if we could get anything from home. “Shoes!” I said emphatically. “These are killing me.” I already had blisters and we were only a half of a day into what I was learning was an itinerant life. He did grant my wish by the way and we stopped by the house so that I could switch shoes. One of my housemates was quick to remind me that “homeless people can’t just go home and get their other shoes!” She was right and I did still switch out my shoes. My friend Brian’s answer to the question that day about stopping home and grabbing something has stuck with me. He responded “Hmm, that will probably keep changing, right now it's headphones, tomorrow it will probably be socks and underwear and after that who knows.” It was true, the longer we were on the street the more basic our needs and desires became. All of our normal cravings and whims were silenced and something like a soda seemed indulgent. After a few nights on the streets Brian's answer became clear. “A watch!” he said. I don’t even have words to communicate how slow time seemed to move and how clueless we were about when the sun might come up. That particular morning we were wide awake, laying there shivering and waiting for the sun to rise. Eventually Brian walked over to a nearby gas station to find out and returned to inform us that it was only 3:15am! I wanted to cry.
I have always remembered this experience for many reasons, not least of which is experiencing the rising value of the things that we so frequently take for granted. We live in such luxury most of the time that we become blind to how valuable each little thing actually is. As we explore the value in the things we take for granted I want to focus our attention in on an image from our daily lives that most clearly represents worthlessness: The trash can.
There is a place where one can get a good glimpse of our trash today. In preindustrial times most waste and garbage was organic and could therefore be left to animals or simply allowed to rot and decay back into the soil. Our landfills are a bit different and we now put our organic waste into inorganic bags to pile up and burn at our waste to energy plants.
I asked a friend to join me on a trip to the dump one day to get rid of a few things. As we unloaded the truck we both just stood and stared at the mountain of stuff in front of us. I remember seeing what looked to me like a perfectly good leather couch being hurled atop of the pile, other furniture being smashed along with decent lumber, discarded tires and everything else you can imagine. I will never forget him saying to me “If this is the excrement of our society, then we seem to have a digestion problem because most of this stuff seems undigested.” He couldn’t have been more right. We are a society of consumers and more than that, we are a society of waste. We throw away everything. “These pants are torn” or stained, we might say. “They are ruined”, they’re trash, rubbish, garbage, scrap, etc. In the film Waste Land, artist Vik Muniz visits a group of Brazilian garbage pickers in Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill and very early in the film we hear of that place “This is where the things that are not good go?” It is not accurate, though, to define trash as ‘things that are not good’ for there are often very good things that end up in landfills because the one that had them did not want them. We simply discard. Trash or waste is actually such a fluid concept that it is almost impossible to define except to say, as we just have, that it is something that someone does not want. We are all familiar with the cliché that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s not that nobody wants it but that whoever had it doesn’t. It is very possible that someone, somewhere, might and probably would want it. Waste is waste because we waste it.
Our landfills tell a story about us just as the ruins of an ancient people would tell us about them. They reveal our wastefulness and expose our beliefs in the expendability of all things. The waste and ruins that our lives produce are unwanted and disposed of because they, like the ancient ruins, declare our own mortality. Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, in a section called Intestine of Leviathan that:
“The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets. Each thing bears its true form, or at least, its definitive form. The mass of filth has this in its favor, that it is not a liar…All the uncleanliness of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth…This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt…The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It says everything”
Our sewers, our trash dumps, our ruins stand up to testify about us.
Because we live in a society that is more concerned with value (as in cost or worth) than with values (as in ethics and convictions) we struggle to find value in things that might not be worth much. In truth we waste our lives on so many meaningless pursuits all the while being called to waste our lives deeply meaningful ways. We should live radically wasteful lives, and we do, but we are doing it all wrong.