One of my more recent dreams in life was to die in action and be remembered for being an epic human rights activist; remembered for at least 5 minutes in a world with a very short concentration span. That dream, in time, gave way to a fiery passion for contributing to change and receiving glory in life – not posthumously. Eventually vanity and incessant need for validation in life or death washed away and I was left with the realization that if I can truly find my centre, feel real empathy without seeking approval, and contribute somehow to even one person, I may be able to fulfill my mysterious and unknown purpose in life.
With my newly found clarity still fresh in its grave, I fled to live my North American dream. I was intermittently ashamed that my new purpose in life would be to think mortgage and credit cards, and deal with a daily albeit wavering dose of racial profiling.
And then I walked past a young white man – sitting outside a depressing Pizza Pizza franchise – with his filthy hands lying in his tattered lap, and eyes that had died a long time ago. The poster child for homelessness, mental illness, and downtown Toronto.
Little did I know that you could instantly feel connected to human misery, even in a new country where you still feel like you don’t belong. The difference in the colour of your skin, or the dissimilarities in your cultural past or present becomes irrelevant. Your loyalty is not to a country’s pain, but to the pain of its humans. Having said that, I am glad I am not in Syria having this epiphany.
I walk past him many times each day. I walk through the city that sometimes smells of piss but only in certain parts. Although I never see 4-year old battered souls selling wilting flowers for pennies, I do see young folks carrying loud anger, hopelessness, and needle marks. Some on the street have come very close to me and screamed threats like ‘I am going to kill you cunt’, except they didn’t. They were merely victims of chronic poverty – not religious or racial dogma.
This is my fleeting and probably a fraction-of-the-real-reality experience of an underground sub-city in Toronto that lives over the ground.
A couple of summers ago during the holy month, more than 2000 people died in Pakistan from excessive heat, power outages and religious zeal – mostly from the unknown poor. The ensuing year, the government dug precautionary mass graves in preparation.
This year as the harsh winter approaches, the homeless death toll in Toronto has reached 70. A number not comparable as a number, but a significant tragedy in a country with a world life expectancy ranking of 12 (versus the 127th ranking Pakistan), and a landscape devoid of massive slums and powerful warlords. I wonder how this poverty that stands out against relative prosperity will be dealt with, if at all. Digging mass graves would certainly be overkill.
I revert to my lost purpose of treasuring my empathy as I hand out one of my cigarettes to the broken young man.