Right and Wrong

I ride the train every day to work, from about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. It’s normally an uneventful train ride – there are some people I know, and others I recognize – and often we stay quiet and read. Sometimes there is a conversation here and there, but that is about it. Today was not to be a typical morning.

So I have this gift, or problem, depending on how you look at it. I listen very intently. Probably too intently. And I have a hard time shutting it off. If I am in a noisy restaurant or a crowded station, it is easy not to hear things. But on the commuter train full of silent passengers reading and sleeping, it is pretty near impossible not to hear what other people are saying. Even when I try.

This morning I was attempting to stay on my super-spiritual track, and continue following along with my church’s two year long Bible reading. I was making great strides in Psalm 74 when across the short aisle, two younger guys came to sit down. I really didn’t pay it much attention, at least I tried not to. But they talked on the quiet train the whole way. Probably 30 minutes worth. And through the silence, I couldn’t resist, no matter how hard I tried to read. I heard the entire conversation.

What exactly was the subject of their talking? It included things like stealing, drugs, mocking people in authority, homelessness, even making outrageous lies to train conductors when they come to ask for tickets. However “horrible” that sounds, and however many expletives were thrown in, some unsaid words were being stamped on my heart and mind.

For story-telling sake, let’s call them John and Jeremiah. John looked about 20 years old, with dark skin and bloodshot eyes, set above some heavy bags. He spoke like a man with much more life experience than 20 years – even if the content was not mature. Jeremiah reminded me of so many of the skater kids I saw around San Diego; tall, dark hair with a hat on, sagging his skinny jeans and wearing layers. Jeremiah was a quiet talker, John, incredibly loud. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if about 10 other people in the train car could hear John clearly. But I wonder if I am the only one who was privy to the entire conversation.

When I first started to hear them, I was trying to come up with multiple ways to pretend I was not listening. Kind of ridiculous and dishonest, I guess, but I didn’t want them to stop talking. I actually became even more self-conscious, realizing that I lacked street cred in my gray cardigan, reading the Bible. If the scribes or teacher’s of the law were modern Christians, I think that they would read the Bible on the train and wear gray cardigans.

My ears first perked up when they started to talk about San Diego, or “Diego” as John called it. He was marveling at the beauty of the ocean we were going by. He said that three months ago was the first time he put his feet in the Pacific Ocean, and that three years ago was the first time he had touched the Atlantic. Jeremiah was quietly telling him that he was tired, and that people on the train didn’t normally talk so loud. But John didn’t seem to care – he just kept talking.

The conversation turned to John’s experiences with some of the homeless people in downtown San Diego. He said that some small group of people decided that they didn’t like. Some girl and her sister got on his case, and threatened to “bash in his head while he was sleeping.” So he hopped on the train and headed to North San Diego county, and on up to Orange County. Jeremiah jumped in at that point.

“You can’t let people treat you like that,” he said. “Next time you tell them that you pray, and that God is watching out for you. You’re not afraid of them. And tell them you’re sorry, even though you don’t know what you did wrong.”

John agreed. “Guess I can do that.”

My ears were drawn in. There was something more going on here, some revelation of the depths of someone’s humanity in the guise of these two guys talking.

John kept on talking. Loudly. “You know I haven’t told my marine friends. #$%^. They would tell me I was crazy if I told them all about this religious stuff. You know, I went to what they call PT. You heard of PT?”

Jeremiah apparently didn’t, nor did I.

“Yeah, PT,” John continued. “Pastor’s training, back when I lived in Northern Iowa. But then my family moved to Southern Iowa.”

“You were in Pastor’s training,” Jeremiah questioned. “#$%*. Why did you quit, man?”

“I told you, my family moved to Southern Iowa. I had to quit. Yeah, and my life changed when I moved to Southern Iowa. Started to do bad #$%*. And then I moved to California three months ago. I don’t know what happened to me when I moved to California, just started doing all this bad #$%* and stuff. You know, like doing #$%* just to mess with the police, #$%*. Like stealing $%&*, and doing things in their face.”

John started laughing again, then became quieter. He whispered,”If my marine buddies found out this religious stuff, they’d tell me I’m stupid. I’m not going to tell them until they know me more, you know. They think I’m crazy.”

Jeremiah just held his head up, but didn’t say much of anything. So John just kept on going.

“I robbed the #$^& out of this grocery store back when I lived in San Bernardino. Just stole all kinds of @#$% from there.”

Jeremiah jumped in, “you stole #$%*? Didn’t get caught?”

“Nah,” John confidently replied. “It was this big store with only one security guard. It was so easy to steal #$%* from there. I’d go in there and take yogurt, donuts, steal me some soda. No way one guy is even going to get me, even if he caught me stealing. I robbed the #$%* out of that place. Superior market it was called, in San Bernardino.”

They both kind of chuckled, though Jeremiah didn’t seem so happy about it. But Jeremiah surprised me.

“Can’t do that sort of thing anymore,” he said.

“Yeah,” John agreed.

Jeremiah continued, ” I remember I used to steal #$%* from this supermarket. I’d just go in there, and grab a pack of doughnuts, and open them up and start eating. Just right there in the store take a big bite out of the chocolate doughnuts, then finish them before I left, and leave the package.”

John loved this story and erupted in laughter.

“Didn’t matter if there was a guard,” John said. “You ate the evidence. #$%* that’s funny.” They both had a hearty laugh, John far more than Jeremiah. But John just kept laughing and laughing, in small fits as he thought about it.

“Next time I’m on the Metrolink,” John said,” and the conductor comes around and asks for the ticket, I’m going to eat. Then I’ll be like, ‘I’m sorry. I just got really hungry and I was looking all around. And all that was there was the ticket. So I ate it!”

John erupted in laughter again and again while Jeremiah looked more and more annoyed.

“That’s not funny, dude,” Jeremiah retorted. That seemed to kill John’s enthusiasm, so it was time for a slight subject change.

John started talking about being down in ‘Diego’ and getting drugs.”That’s the one thing I will miss about changing, is that I can’t smoke pot. I know a lot of people down in Diego that I can get some @#$% from. I used to do some crazy @#$%, but now, all I really want is some pot. Should get some money for that @#$%.”

“If you get  a joint,” Jeremiah explained, “all you do is like one puff, dude. Can’t do that stuff a lot any more. I used to drink all the time, but now I can only have a little. It’s all about balance. It’s in the Bible, water into wine, so God’s cool with drinking. But not too much. Same with a joint – only one puff is enough. More than one puff and it’s not right.”

“Yeah,” John agreed. “I could really use some spice, though. I know this guy that sells spice downtown. If you go out you can find spice for like $1.50 a joint. But I know this dude that’s been selling it. He sells it for a lot more, you know, like $2.00 a joint. @#$%ing rips you off.

“So why would you get it from him?”

“‘Cause it’s easy to get, you know. I feel sorry for someone that has to get it from him, because he rips you off. But I could use some spice.” John looks at his hands, as if he can picture a joint sitting right there.

“We can go down to the courthouse and hustle the people there. There are always a lot of people there. We can hustle up some money for a joint. Just walk up to the people and tell them that we need some money for some food.”

“But we don’t need money for food,” Jeremiah objected.

“Yeah, but then people will give us money,” John clarified.

Jeremiah started to raise his typically quiet voice, ” We can’t do that, dude. That would be lying. We need to tell people the truth. We can just walk up to them and say, ‘We need some money to get a joint.’ People appreciate honesty, and if it’s the right thing to do, we will get money.”

John started laughing again. “You serious? No one’s going to give us money for that. That’s crazy #$%^. I’m going to ask for money for food.”

“Go ahead and lie, then.” Jeremiah said. “My biggest issue is pride. My grandfather, his downfall was pride, and its mine too. I am too proud to really be asking people for something that I don’t need, you know. Like I never ask my friends for money. And I’m not going to lie to people to get stuff.”

John looks convicted and confesses as well.  “Yeah,  pride is my problem too. Can’t ask others for too much help. I feel guilty. Like I would rather stay out in the cold on the street like last night than ask friends to take me in. You know, it’s all pride. And pride isn’t good.”

At that point we arrived at the station, and they both went quiet as they looked outside. And I was quiet as well. “What do I do with all of this,” I thought to myself. I wanted to speak out and let them know I heard everything. And that I was ashamed. And I was proud of them. It was as if I were drenched in a world of flexible rigidity – of moral absolutes paired with absolutely no moral understanding. My very being wanted to judge them for thinking that drugs are okay, or that it is fine to hustle people or lie to a conductor. My sense of pity and compassion wanted to give them a home and a job. But my silence had left me powerless to connect with them, as if I were a spy recording it remotely, only able to access the information set before me.

“How could this be?” I thought to myself. “People who are like this don’t have moral compasses. They are lost.” And God had exposed me. Why couldn’t “people like this” have moral compasses. And for that matter, why couldn’t they be followers of Jesus himself? Aren’t they just sinners, humans, neighbors, kids?

And how many compromises do I make, completely unaware of them, not even able to admit that I am a rebellious person? How blind can I be? And then I realized it.

“Yeah,  pride is my problem too.”


Cold Spell, Part 2

I have often heard people ask impossible questions. They especially come out when things are getting really bad. And by bad I mean something is happening that we don’t like. For instance, when a relative is dying, we often think of it as a bad thing. Or maybe losing a job. For some people it might be not winning the lottery. Whatever it is, things are not going the way that we (as individuals) wanted or expected. The bad, unexpected events lead to the most difficult questions.

Are we foolish for asking tough questions? I have decided that most of the time, I am. I mean, what is the use of asking a question that has something to do with a non-entity, like cold?

Cold is the absence of heat. Where there is no heat, the is cold. You could also say that cold can be defined by a scale of the heat. For instance, if the temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit in your house, you would want to increase the heat. The temperature of the heat is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far too low for you to be comfortable, and therefore, it is cold.

Now let’s say you are woken up by the rays of sunlight flickering into your room one morning. From the cocoon of your covers, things are a very pleasant 80 degrees F, and by the way the sun is looking, it is going to soon be the same outside. You are also in shorts and a tank top under the covers (in case you are wondering what you are wearing). So you slip out of the covers, and then it hits you. You are very, very cold. Sure the sun is out, but inside it is fifteen degrees below freezing because your freezer is malfunctioning. You become very angry at the unexpected cold. The first thing from your lips as you leap back under the covers is:

“Why is it so cold?”

Easy enough for this question, at least with a little investigation. But the funny thing is, we ask this sort of question all of the time when the plain facts are before us. Somehow the facts are not enough to answer it.

Questions on a relative scale are curious. They are situational, temporal, and have a lot to do with how one sees the world. That is how I, from San Diego, can go outside and shiver, while someone in Illinois experiencing the same temperature, can put on shorts and flip-flops. Mind you there are some absolutes with cold; people cannot survive below freezing temperatures for long without clothing or shelter.

Most of the time that I stop and ask questions, either aloud or to myself, I am asking questions that come back to this relative scale. And they are often questions I can’t really answer. Why aren’t I paid as much as Bill? Fred is a great person, so why did he get cancer? Why can’t I be as romantic as George is to his wife? When do I get to buy a bigger home for my family? These are the sticking questions, the lingering questions, the ones that i have learned to ask. And to think upon. Most of the time they make me unhappy.

The weird thing is, sometimes I am convinced that I am not asking myself these questions, but the world around me is. Just like the cold, this other social entity is poking holes in my existence like a woodpecker. Except it is not my existence, but my joy. Or my hope for something better, often the very thing the question begs.

We live in a culture of these relative distinctions as human beings. In some places it is racial identity (darker or lighter), others it is wealth (richer or poorer), still others it is language (clearer, or well, not). In America, we come back to money, fame, and power or success. Even worse for us Americans, we as a society have figured out how to constantly reset the scale. If the standard seems unattainable, or high, good – because it is. It is like we all have become San Diego natives who struggle with the 50 degree weather and cannot keep our focus off of it, while the rest of the world is putting on their summer clothes and celebrating.

And we continue to ask, “Why are we so cold?”

Cold Spell, Part 1

I am often amazed at the temperature.  Here in San Diego, where I live, the changes in temperature are much smaller than in other parts of the country. The desert can fluctuate from a pleasant below freezing to above toleration. Right now, while I am enjoying the brisk 50’s, others are enduring the mid-0’s. 50 degrees F is cold enough for me.

It seems like everyone else is amazed by the temperature too. Temperature is a great subject to discuss. Have you ever walked up to someone and started a conversation about the weather? It’s even easier when the day is cold. Just walk up to a perfect stranger.

“Brr, it is really chilly today,” I’ll say.

“Yeah, it is very cold. Need to stay warm with my jacket,” the stranger will reply.

“Exactly. Stay warm. Have a good day!”

Recently my wife and I moved into a brand new place. At least brand new for us. It is a lot bigger than either of us are used to. And, despite the size, there really isn’t a central heating system. We thought there was- there are vents on either side of the largest room – but we were wrong. They are just small radiant wall heaters. We turned them on once. The room remained cold.

On any given winter day in San Diego, our new home gets very cold. It is true that living in San Diego gives one a small tolerance for cold, but this is bone-chilling, breath watching cold. The worst time of the day seems to be somewhere around eight in the morning. The sun peers in through our sliding doors, suggesting the warm outside, while the shadows of cold inside grow. I used to think it was funny to pretend to smoke when I could see my breath. Nowadays, though, I just shiver and run my hands under the warm water of the faucet.

Being so cold made me think about the people who built our place back in the seventies. What were they thinking? I am guessing the builder was being cheap. They probably lived in some place with wall insulation, central heating, and really cheap electricity. And back in the seventies people had more hair, so maybe they stayed naturally warm.

Sometimes it is comical how cold we get. My wife wraps herself in layers of shirts under a bright red robe, occasionally with a vest on top, and scoots around the floor in cow slippers. I keep it classy under multiple sweaters and a winter coat. We will use anything to heat up; cups of tea, the stove top, the shower, scarves, beanies, gloves, boots, down comforters, and the sunlight, when it is available. The best method is to try to use all of the above in tandem, so you keep moving.

As post-modern people, we couldn’t battle the cold for long without mechanical intervention. So we went out and purchased a space heater. It isn’t anything flashy – it is an oil heater that looks like an old fashioned radiator. And, not surprisingly, the heater has become a treasured belonging. It follows us into every space, like an inanimate R2-D2. Too bad it can only heat small spaces. I was hoping for more beeping noises and sarcasm. Still, it is not bad company, and often my wife and I find ourselves getting closer to it than our neighbors. Temperature is a powerful thing, especially when you are cold.

Do you ever stop and think about the cold? Not just talk about it, or feel it, but think about it. When I am waiting outside in the morning for the train to come, I think about it. Cold is like a force permeating my layers of clothes, tugging and ripping at me. It is one of those strange things that exists solely as an absence of something else. Fundamentally, it is a non-entity.

Sometimes I picture the cold as a vacuum, pulling on the heat radiating from our bodies, trying to neutralize and dissipate it, so that all that there is left is a void. If we saw each other through infrared lenses, all we could see would be radiating beams of heat. And when no one is around, you can’t see anything. If the cold started to win its battle, there would be nothing to see at all. Cold would be darkness.