In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.
This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.
Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.
Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.
Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”
But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.
Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.
The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.
I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.
What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.
Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.
Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.
How much a dollar cost?
My friend, Mike, was recently killed by sheriff’s deputies at the Denver jail. “Homicide,” said the county coroner, which just means he didn’t kill himself, not that anyone did anything wrong.
Mike was picked up on suspicion of trespass and disorderly conduct and held on $100 bail. He had an incident with another inmate and was restrained. Choked on his own vomit. Suffered a heart attack. He lived until his family had him removed from life support.
If I was someone without experience with mentally ill, addicted, sometimes aggressive, often erratic people, I might think it wasn’t unreasonable for sheriff’s deputies to restrain Mike to the point where he died. Except I have weekly experience with people just like Mike. If I can resolve erratic, psychotic, drug-induced behaviors nonviolently, then a Denver sheriff’s deputy sure as shit can.
But on November 11th 2015, Mike’s life was worth less than a hundred dollars.
I left off exploring the concept of friendship last time with Buber’s observation, “All real living in a meeting.” We investigated friendship as a concept that has no measurable object but itself, a continuous process of becoming, and as a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.
Normally, we think of friendship as a matrix of shared experience and interests. Throw in a chance meeting and you’ve got a friendship. A quote from one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, captures this:
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.”
It would be easy to cast this sentiment aside as unserious, except I think it sketches around the edge of a fundamental truth: it is impossible to encounter the fullness of another person. Books, records, films, these things can suggest who another person “really” is—and it's how we "really" meet each other.
Remember our short look at Martin Buber’s concept of ‘Thou’ in the previous post? With this language he’s suggesting another person is totally other. Buber wants to say there is a transcendent quality to a human being that is impossible to approach.[^1] Even to make the attempt to meet “what you are like” is folly when we do not first recognize the constraints of language and limited human understanding. Perhaps the best we can do is to approach the Thou of another person through manifestations of our similarities. Encountering and acknowledging this unbridgeable gulf is the basis of relationship based on freedom, mutual responsibility, and a process of becoming.
But this only partially meets our definition of friendship. If we’re content to define friendship through mutual interest, we miss a deeper understanding of friendship based not on similarity, but difference. It is difference which drives friendship as a site of action where need and desire are joined.[^2]
Shelley Jackson writes of the power of difference in friendship through the metaphor of a book: “A book, like a friendship, has two sides.” Jackson says that these two sides are “you and me” or “author and reader.” The power of the relationship between the two sides comes directly out of their difference. The desire for that which is out of reach of both the reader’s understanding and the author’s ability to express holds the two sides together in a mutual process of difference and togetherness.[^3] The same is true of friendship. We seek to express who we really are (what we are like) through our friendships. We seek to know another person, and ourselves. Through this process we come to know a bit of God—the divine sustaining center which makes friendship possible in the first place, the first thing we all share. We fall short, but the infinite qualitative distinction[^4] between ourselves, the other, and God stokes our desire and compels us to continue searching.
Meeting difference in another person is what drives our desire to continue the process of friendship’s becoming. Difference is also what makes solidarity possible. It fills out our definition of friendship. Most importantly, moments of reconciliation within difference are where we experience joy.[^5]
In an upcoming post, I will more deeply investigate mutual responsibility and solidarity as basic requirements for the fullness of friendship generating freedom and joy in those who constitute the relationship.