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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tied Up ... conclusion

There must be fanatics out there who troll the Internet daily looking for any mention of their sacred cows so they can immediately send angry comments. One small mention of Ayn Rand, a relatively insignificant literary figure with a hard-core cult following, seemed to attract a storm of protest. The comments from "Richard", an Ayn Rand groupie up in Toronto were pretty typical of the ilk. Either you completely submit to the dogma, or you are "refusing to be rational." There is no question of disagreement. That does not compute. Some people are just plain old control freaks, masquerading as philosophers. The Internet is a rich hunting ground for them.

About a month has gone by. Mark still does not have a job. I have fixed up a couple of interviews for him with business colleagues. Both seemed keen to meet him but neither hired him. They both gave me different excuses - along the lines of - "we really don't have any vacancies," which is not what they said when they asked to meet him. It could have something to do with his appearance, which is getting very shabby. Whenever I give him a ride somewhere these days I need to deodorize my car afterwards. The other day I gave him money for a haircut, but he didn't get a haircut and he didn't give back the money.

He's living in a homeless shelter now. I don't know exactly where it is; as an "inmate" he's not allowed to say. The shelter is in a church building and consists of about 30 mattresses on the floor, with a shared bathroom. Sometimes there is hot water. No phones, radios, computers, etc., are allowed. The church does not want anyone knowing it is a shelter so no-one goes in or out directly. Instead, all the residents have to congregate at some church "office" about 10 miles away, every evening at 7.00. Then they are given a breathalyser test and placed in a small inconspicuous unmarked bus, and ferried down to the shelter where they must enter quickly through a back door. They are not allowed out again till 7 am, when they are taken 10 miles by bus back to the office and released for the day. I think they are given sandwiches. He can stay there a maximum of 30 days. That's usually about the time of day Mark calls me to ask me if I can take him here or take him there. If it's job-related I will often agree, but it's surprising how few actual job interviews he goes to, and how many coffee bars all over town he wants to go to, for no good reason.

He is now getting some kind of counselling through the Easter-Seals organization. I'm not sure to what extent this is psychological, and to what extent vocational. I do know he berates them as "idiots" who just want to "control" him. Nonetheless I've noticed some adjustment in his attitude since he started going there. He now occasionally makes a point of thanking me for my help, and talks a lot about how he is responsible for his own situation and has to be constructive and make the best of it. This is all good I suppose, but I can't help thinking it is just lip-service. I think perhaps these topics come up in counselling and he is just echoing this new lexicon (with his oratorical flair) to show me and show the world how adjusted, humble and contrite he is.

I know, I know: now I am the cynic. But I have my reasons for my suspicions. First, these concessions to humility are usually only made at the start of a meeting. By the time an hour or two has elapsed he is back to his old negative self. Second there is the strange matter of Mark and the Internet. Why are his long empty days spent in one coffee-bar after another, where he nurses one small cup of the cheapest brew for hours. Every time I pick him up or drop him somewhere it has to be at a Starbucks or a Caribou or Panera ... all places that have wireless Internet. He is never without his laptop. As time went by I began to wonder what on earth was so important about the Internet. We all send and get a little email and need to look up a few things here and there ... but there is no need to live day and night in cyberspace, any more than one needs to live in the Post Office, or in the library. I would ask him; "Mark --- why the hell do I need to take you all the way to ______?" He would answer "Because they have free Internet there." I would ask: "What on earth is so important about the Internet? You need a job, not an Internet connection." He would say mysteriously: "Well I need to dig up some stuff online." Well fair enough. Sometimes we all need to "dig up" some stuff online, but all day? Every day? Month after month? When you're out of work and homeless? What is that all about?

A few days ago he hung out at my house for a few hours. I gave him a chair and a little table for his laptop and left him alone. Later I needed him to look at something so I said "can you come here for a moment?" He said "Hang on -- I just need to finish something ---" and he was typing busily. Then he was sitting back looking at his screen for a minute, then typing again, then waiting, and so on. He had a kind of half-smile on his face. I realised he was chatting online. I know it was none of my business but a little alarm bell was ringing in my head. I asked him outright "What are you doing?" He said he was talking in a "support group." "What kind of group?" "Oh," he said nonchalantly, "It's Al-Anon. Some of those people are pretty messed up."

How many of "those people" did he know? How did he know they were "messed up"? It occurred to me that this was what he did all day long, and had been doing since I met him. He lived online in some kind of support group, and was for all intents and purposes addicted to it. Not an hour could go by when he did not have to find some way to log on and participate. Everything else, including finding a home, finding a job, making and keeping friends in the "real world", was secondary. He could tolerate and rationalize being penniless and rootless, he could tolerate living in a world of "idiots" that constantly tried to victimize him, but he couldn't tolerate being without wi-fi and a laptop. Were these cyber-people his real "family"? Did he really have deep, lasting, meaningful relationships with "Anxious in Alaska", or "DayByDay in Denver" while his exterior life crumbled?

I would guess probably not. Calling them "messed up" is a fairly strong clue. He obviously doesn't see himself as "messed up." With his natural dominant traits and his flair for dogmatizing I wouldn't be surprised if he were dishing out advice and rhetoric to gullible minds. He had an Internet following... a little kingdom where he could be king, unlike the cold unfriendly wastelands of the world in which his body lived. It was that half smile that said as much. There was something so out of place about it on a face so habitually careworn and creased. it was not a benign smile of affection or forbearance. It was a crocodile's smile; all salivation and anticipation of a forthcoming kill. It was the smile of Richard III: "I can smile, and murder while I smile..."

He is probably very good at it. People who become "sponsors" in 12-step groups are sometimes covertly very controlling types, who want to dominate the lives of others. The naive new 12-stepper is an easy mark. But to do this it is necessary for the sponsor himself/herself to ignore his own plight. Perhaps not ignore it, but certainly use it as a tool to gain credibility and an advantage. If the sponsor ever recovers and moves on, they no longer qualify to sponsor others. Fortunately in the world of 12-stepping no one ever recovers from anything. To do so would be to stop being a victim, which would be too radical. Instead you just move up the seniority list.

So the day arrived recently when my phone rang at 8 am. I knew who it was of course. Mark knows perfectly well I tend to work until very late at night, and don't get up before 9. He knows this but he seems to think he has a free pass because of the "urgency" of his situation. On that day he wanted me to pick him up at some Starbucks and take him to fill out an application for a driving job in a town an hour away. Something inside me clicked. I said - "I'm sorry, I'm tied up today." There was a long terrible pause. Then he said "OK, what about tomorrow?" I said "I'm pretty busy tomorrow too. In fact I'm tied up all week." There was an even longer pause which smelled of "deeply wounded" then a few faltering remarks about "well -- ok --- I guess I'll work something out --- " etc. Then: "See you." and he hung up. He never bothered to ask how I was, but then, he never did. I tried to go back to sleep but I couldn't. I was afraid I'd just sent him to jump off a bridge.

I know I've painted him as a selfish irresponsible pig, but that was this week. Last week I painted him as a hapless victim of circumstance who slipped through the net. The week before he was a fallen God who could find no comfortable home on earth. Yes, all the same person. Which is the real Mark? Is he the hopeless hapless victim, or is he a predatory irresponsible bum? Which is the real Derek? Am I the Samaritan who tries to dress the stranger's wounds or am I the one who passes by on the other side of the street? Am I healing myself by trying to heal the life of another, or am I taking on too much responsibility for the plight of others. Can we/should we/must we try to change the world into a kinder gentler place, given that the world was designed to be a place of insoluble problems and endless suffering, laced with just the occasional promise of happiness for bait? What would Jesus do? What would you do?

I know what I did. I uttered those prescient words -- "I'm tied up." It doesn't matter how you say them -- to someone who is totally dependent on you they are a death sentence. To someone who is just using you they are a notification that the game is over. Either way they are three words that mark the end of an era. What did I achieve with them?

Time and my fridge door will tell.


Anonymous Wixom said...

Entertaining but I don't knowhow close to the truth. Seems like Marks passion for his internet friends is the only passion in a bleak life. Maybe a lot like those guys who attack you with Ayn Rand dogma. If its the only thing they have in their bleak little life, no wonder they're so adamant about it :-)

12:31 PM  
Anonymous K said...


Guilt over hurting another, and guilt over failing to help another are very much the same thing in the ego's bag of tricks. They are part of a ceaseless campaign to keep us "mindless" or focused on illusory problems in an illusory world. As long as we agonize over such issues we never get in touch with the real source of guilt, which is the guilt in the mind that is projecting all this unreal chaos.

All evidence to the contrary it is actually foolish, even arrogant, to think we can truly cause pain or harm to another. It is possible to act in such a way as to verify (to him) any beliefs he already holds about pain and victimisation, but you can't be the real first cause of his pain. That is far deeper and more ontological than any issues of employment or abode. Like you, your friend has the power to change his mind and get back to the truth (though it is not easy.) Can you really believe your mind is powerful enough to take away what God has given? He will reclaim it when he is ready. The exact timing of that is not your concern, and you should not punish yourself.

Please remember no-one can feel attacked unless they choose it. That billions of people worldwide feel attacked is evidence that billions of people do make that choice. We can choose again. K.

8:31 PM  
Blogger will said...


I have to agree with what k said. I don't think I can actually do it, but I agree! Guilt over how I act or how I treat others has been of life long fascination (grin). After three years of ACIM I am just beginning to climb out of the ditch.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous jean said...

i have the feeling there"s a theme here but i don't know what it is. sounds like you are talking about some religious or philosopical system but what kind of system justifies not helping people in serious need? i'm willing to give you benefit of the doubt, you're not cruel, you're following some belief. what is that belief? it isnt christian. i never heard of anything like that. how would you feel if you were the guy who is down and out.?

7:25 PM  
Blogger will said...

Over the past week I tried to post a comment but my computer skills were just not up to the task. I was so surprised by my recent success that I forgot to mention what a great piece of writing the last three weeks has been. I really looked forward to each blog.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

I usually don't respond to comments but it would be rude not to say thank you for your nice compliment. Hope you will contribute more in the future. D.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Derek

Thanks for the Ayn Rand comment. Ayn Rand saved my life, no doubt about it. Back in the summer of '87, when the Oliver North hearings were going on and I was a lost college kid, I picked up a battered copy of Atlas Shrugged and devoured it in 3 days. Finally a person saying there was Life in the world and that human ability wasn't something to be ashamed of.

Years later, as an ACIM student (something Rand would have vehemently disapproved of), I knew in my heart that Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were the only things I could have accepted at the time. ACIM was too theoretical. So perhaps these novels were ways in which the HS was calling me home.....

I like your blog because it shows that an ACIM students can still question the world and have doubts. I love ACIM but have real doubts sometimes because it is so darned vague!!! Like this situation with Mark....I too have a situation that is so difficult to deal with. ACIM sometimes feels like a stone around my neck to be honest, especially when trying to handle real-life problems. I think that a lot of it comes down with common sense really...

Thank you for your honesty. Hope you continue with the blogging.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Manu said...

This is a perfect ego trap to reinforce the underlying sense of guilt and maintain the illusion. Christian as well as other belief systems that believe in the attraction of guilt will want to do something in the world. When one achieves salvation through forgiving the self-created illusion, the illusion and everyone in the illusion disappears, and that's how one help one's brothers.

10:46 AM  


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