A few years ago the late David Foster Wallace brought my attention to an interesting analogy on life. It has many variations, but the story goes something like this: Two young fish are swimming along when an older fish crosses their path. The older fish says, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After he’s gone, one young fish turns to the other and says “What the hell is water?”
This story reflects a fundamental truth of life. As David once put it, “The most obvious, important realities are often the hardest to see and talk about.” The things we know to be normal are only normal because we know them. The way we live could seem inconceivable to others, yet we can’t see their perspective because we’re surrounded by our own realities.
The very different “water” of the homeless young people in Santa Cruz became clear to us on the night Brian and I helped distribute food, coffee and clothing on the streets. Our new friends, Julie and Alex Kozel, run the Stansberry Childrens Home and have connections to nonprofits throughout the city. They helped us get the opportunity to join Roberto and Lincoln, two leaders of Youth With a Mission, as they made their rounds bringing some help and hope to the drug-addicted young people congregating in certain sections of the city.
The drug of choice on the Bolivian streets is shoe glue. Huffing begins at a young age, often to stave off hunger pains, and soon develops into a life-consuming addiction. The young people we met would have a small tube tucked up a sleeve and every minute or two you’d see them bring it to their nose. This product that can be bought at any local shop has the potential to ruin lives.
Our first stop of the night was in the grassy median of a busy main road. Not knowing what to expect, Brian and I were quite surprised when our arrival launched a fun social gathering. As young men and women ate the sandwiches and drank the coffee we’d brought, there was a lot of laughter and requests for group photos. It was one man’s birthday, so his friends had managed to find him a piece of cake. They sang him the local birthday song, and then followed Bolivian tradition by smashing the slice into his face. It all felt like an impromptu party of old friends.
Yet, the grim reality of it all was never far away. Between their smiles, there was always the quick pull of a tube to the nose to reignite their huffing highs. A few of the girls had just been at a nearby mobile health clinic getting tested for HIV because they work in the sex trade. One man began telling the stories behind his many scars –a stab wound here, a gunshot there, a machete slash, a puncture wound. Their collective tragedy lay just below the jovial surface.
At our next stops the mood was much more somber. We came upon a mother with two small children. As she rifled through the bags of clothes Lincoln and Roberto offered, her little boys wandered around on the curb collecting bits of trash. Some CDs. A soda can. A plastic bag. My heart ached for them as Roberto talked with their mother about some of the local services she could use to help her care for her sons.
In another area of town we found a group getting ready to go to sleep on the sidewalk. Among them was a young boy sniffing glue from a plastic bottle and a toddler wandering around her mother’s legs. Looking at those two children, I could see both the past and the future. At one point that young addict had likely been toddling around his own mother’s legs late at night on a street like this, and years into the future the odds were that little girl could be homeless and addicted to huffing.
This life on the streets is their “water.” It’s the only reality those children know. Just like my middle-class upbringing and educated parents were my reality, theirs has always been sleeping on the sidewalk, scrounging for food and seeing constant drug use all around them. All we know are the advantages and disadvantages we live within, so it’s not surprising when we fail to acknowledge them. We have a hard time seeing other versions of life because, like the young fish, we simply don’t know the water exists.
I’ll be real honest and say that it took me a long time to see my own water. I’ve always worked hard and followed the rules, so I took a lot of credit for my own accomplishments. Focusing on a stable and successful future was such an obvious and easy path that I didn’t have much sympathy for those struggling to survive in my own country. Sure, people dying of famine or recovering from catastrophic events certainly need our help. I could get on board with that kind of compassion because it wasn’t their fault. But to be addicted to drugs, living on the street or committing crimes in modern-day America? Well, it just doesn’t have to be that way, folks! Stop doing drugs. Stop drinking. Get a job. Make something of yourself. I mean, come on, anyone can do it.
Then somewhere along the way it started to occur to me how much my life has been influenced by things completely outside of my control. Luckily for me, these were all good things. Loving parents, a stable family life, a nice house, clean clothes, and a good education…just to name a few. What if it had been bad things happening to me that I couldn’t control? A drug-addicted mom. An abusive dad. A disability that made me feel dumb every minute I was in school. Violence in my neighborhood. Who would I be then? Who would any of us be if not for the reality we live in and the people who influence us? As human souls, none of us are different than that homeless boy sniffing glue or the young mother living on the streets with her toddler. We aren’t better than others because we’re living healthier, more stable lives. We just had clean, nourishing water.
With a sandwich, a hot coffee and some conversation, Roberto and Lincoln give street kids a glimpse of a future they didn’t know could exist. Not many are able to extricate themselves from life on the street, but with a helping hand some of them do. And when that happens they stop the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families.
At the same time, volunteers like Brian and I get a heavy reminder of the advantages we’ve been given and the incredible importance of human compassion. We can show our gratitude for the good things in our lives by doing what we can to bring those same things to the lives of others. There’s plenty of room in the ocean. We need to help our fellow man find a way to safer waters.
The selfless and committed work of Roberto, Lincoln and many others help us acknowledge the water we’re swimming in, and in the process they change the world one disadvantaged street kid and privileged volunteer at a time.