Mitchell Heisman, Struggle, and the Humanitarian Dream of Compassion by Phoenix

This past week, has been, struggle. For me, personally, dealing with mental health and the fears that naturally brings. For our nation, who is tearing apart at the seams politically, working hard to stay stable amidst shootings of African American men, among other concerns. For our community, which seems sometimes to be bombarded with apathy and misunderstanding, xenophobia and fear, hatred and negativity.


On July 9, 2016, I led a squad on our Feed the Streets Outreach for The Legacy Initiative.


It started off well enough. I found out that one of my homeless friends, who came to visit Legacy today on our outreach, has currently lost hope in himself and in the world: He described an experience where a man threw change at him, and when my friend reached to grab it, the man spit on him multiple times. This was before we’d even started the race, so to speak, and things were already going south, we were already starting on a bad foot.


In the meantime, I was getting pulled in many different directions, trying to help out my friend and give him encouragement while also assisting to prepare for our outreach. He had a good talk with one of the volunteers there, which was good, but I could tell he was defeated. I noticed that my friend kept hanging out in the corner, the furthest he could be from our group, signifying a feeling of being excluded: I am sensitive to feelings of exclusion, because it has affected me in many different ways, and I recognized the posturing: Not feeling part of society, the classic feeling of someone experiencing homelessness, so consequently staying at a distance. He described how his stuffed monkey, which he found one day and kept with him for comfort, also got stolen.


I could talk about the injustice this friend experienced, but I think that’s apparent and I don’t want to beat a dead horse; but what I can’t talk enough about is just the simple fact that we treat homeless people this way. He was trying to keep a positive outlook and stay out of trouble of any sort, but I could see his resolve breaking down. A careless person’s action of hate not only cost the dignity of one man, but also placed tension on an already strained situation: Basically, now he won’t frequent the place I kept running into him, where I was able to serve and assist and give necessary supplies.


It put stress on me mentally, hearing this story. I was already reeling from mental trouble a few days before, and I knew I was present but not mentally capable of handling the stress. And yet, I pushed forward, struggled, showed my friend my minimalist poetry collection Pocket Words (which I brought to show my Legacy family), and then told him I wanted to be there for him, and that I hoped to be of service, this leading into our outreach.


As we passed out burritos and hygiene kits, I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend and the severe way he was disrespected. I was already distracted, though, by the philosophical arguments of Mitchell Heisman, a philosopher who wrote a treatise justifying suicide, what he preferred to view as a rational suicide avoiding what he called life-centeredness. I was specifically focused in the moment on a comment that someone had made to me that day regarding my work on Heisman (a YouTube video I made), where he said my points were irrelevant to what Mitchell Heisman actually accomplished philosophically. I asked him to present a formal argument, and he did: He said that, suicide aside, any subjective experience or aspect, such as emotions and feeling, is pointless, especially when taking a hard materialist stance on the world: That we are chiefly biological agents, and that our subjective experience does not help us survive, him tying his argument into Darwinism and Darwin’s work. He argued that the Romantic impulse is flawed and dead by the time you get to Postmodernism (an argument I’ve heard before, but that I find troubling), that is, the emphasis on the importance of emotion in navigating through life. Essentially, then, the critique of my position was that I didn’t understand the emphasis on rationality that Mitchell Heisman was working through, because I thought that personally, his view was flawed, and that suicide is sad.


You can probably see why this would trouble me. Boy, did I open up the rabbit hole unintentionally.


The point being: I was troubled by this because I feel emotion, and our subjective experiences precisely, are exactly where we get meaning and find justifications for why we do what we do on a day to day basis: It’s how we make decisions. I’m not a materialist, and as I struggle mentally and struggle in day to day life and struggle with society, I become less and less of a materialist, precisely because I think an excess emphasis on the biological is destructive to many of the things that humanity has to offer. I don’t want to get into the philosophical points and my refutation too specifically, except to say that it’s important I grapple with these arguments, because it helps me understand better why I do what I do: What’s the point, then, at least according to this argument, of being compassionate and passing out burritos to those who are hungry, if it’s literally just a pointless subjective experience, a byproduct of being an emotional animal enslaved by emotion, instinct, and drives? Indeed, I cannot subscribe to views like this, and it’s because, I think it’s the humanitarian dream to soften the blows of the world, and to make the world a better place to be in: The humanitarian dream is to specifically be compassionate, and to ascribe value to it and to human lives, because humanitarians seem to generally understand the dangers of societal marginalization (using my friend as an example) and the dangers of losing sight of what binds us together. If all we care about is our own survival or justifying our suicide, we have lost the opportunity to enrich the lives of others, and we consequently seem to live in a colder, more apathetic, more dangerous world.


This is what I was thinking about as we did the outreach. Wrestling with why I value this work that I do for the community. I ultimately decided I value it not for some rational reason (I’ve been known to comment that despite my emphasis on reason, I know its limitations), but for a reason that transcends explanation, or at least immediate and immediately tangible explanation. Sometimes you’ve just got to care. It’s as philosophically sterile as that.


I also talked with my friend Shaun after the outreach, who joined me today and volunteered. We talked about the way in which serving others is a double-edged sword, as it cuts both ways. Indeed, we were making people angry who were affluent and well off (as, why would they need our burrito if they were obviously well off and well fed?), but we also made those who needed it angry, because we were coming from a place of privilege, and it seems arrogant to offer something in this fashion to some people (even though none of this was our intent). My friend brilliantly deconstructed this dilemma, by pointing out that if you need it, you should be humble enough to take it, no matter what your circumstances, and that if you don’t need it, you should be humble enough to be grateful that such efforts at curbing hunger exists. He made an analogy to a kid from rich parents who chooses the rebellious life and lives on the streets and gets into drugs, and being humble enough to take a burrito. I think placing the emphasis on humility is important here, because humility is what allows us to work together, to be more than rational animals, and to look out for each other. It’s how communities form.


As a final event, we met a person experiencing homelessness who’d just lost someone close to him. It went well at first, as we gave him plenty of burritos (literally loaded him up, in fact), and I got to read him a poem from my published book Pocket Words, about the beauty of journeys and experience. But then he broke down into tears and explained the situation, and asked us to pray with him. One of the volunteers obliged this request out of respect. This event haunts me because it shows the depth of human pain, but also the place for compassion in our society.


We cannot lose sight of this. If Mitchell Heisman’s argument is that we numb and dumb down emotion or even eradicate it to make survival the emphasis, we will never be able to care for others, and understand human pain, and consequently, ease human suffering and live for something greater than ourselves.


So I guess you could say, today, I was humbled, deeply. I’m exhausted, and for a lot of reasons. All of this has helped me understand my limitations, and where I must tread lightly, but also that we can do good, and we can do good today, even if we’re struggling or our society is struggling. Now is the time: We can always strive for the humanitarian dream, and work harder to feel. Just feel.


And, experience.