Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The Ghost of Horatio Alger visits Frank
(Photo by Jean Yves Lemoigne)
It was Christmas Eve, 2007 when the ghost of Horatio Alger took me out for a tour of downtown San Diego.
I had read one of Horatio Alger’s books a few weeks before while researching Project Gutenberg. I had discovered that before his death in 1899 Alger had published over 100 novels of historical adolescent fiction. These books chronicled down-and-out boys who overcame poverty by hard work, personal virtue, and luck.
I was sick with a high fever, which I guessed, I had caught doing my weekly volunteer work at the downtown branch of the Disciples of Christ’s soup kitchen.
Alger’s ghost was clothed in a full-body sock. No features were visible, but I could hear his voice clearly as he escorted me in broad daylight through downtown.
“So Frank,” Alger prompted, as he forcefully turned my head to the side, “Do you see the soup kitchen over there?”
“Yes,” I replied looking up at the building.
“You think you’re helping the poor right?”
“Well of course! We feed them every Wednesday night.”
“Yes you do feed them, and that’s okay. Jesus himself said, ‘The poor you will have with you ever, and you may do good to them whenever you want.’ You do so on Wednesday nights.”
“But you feel bad, almost guilty about your plenty and their lack. You feel like you never do enough. Yes?”
“Yeah. I feel like I’m the fortunate one, and they are just suffering great misfortune.”
At this Horatio laughed, and I was offended.
“Yes. I laugh at your ignorance. You conclude that the difference between you and, say the homeless man on the sidewalk, is one of fortune and misfortune.”
“Mostly: that’s true. If circumstances were different, I could be that man.”
“I think not,” said Alger with confidence.
“Why not?” I protested.
“Because you are hardworking, and he is slothful.”
“Isn’t that a bit harsh?” I replied.
“Not at all. Look closely. Is his face gaunt?”
”That’s because he rarely misses a meal. Do you see the cigarette butts strewn about him?”
“Yes, I see them.”
“He smokes two packs a day, and that’s a very expensive habit.”
“But Alger, the man has no legs!”
“But Frank,” he mocked me, “he’s on military disability!”
“But he’s homeless. Obviously he’s been cast off by society!”
“You might think so, but do you really think that this man has no family or friends?”
“Well, everyone has family, I guess.”
“Yes they do, and his have attempted to help him get off the street repeatedly, but he doesn’t want help. He’s a simple hedonist. He’s got food, smokes, a decent climate, and the undeserved pity of folks like you.”
“Now you are being harsh. What of his injuries?”
“He’s a veteran. He has access to help, good prosthetics are available for vets. (Look closely at his stuff. Do you see the leg extenders?) He has chosen his place, in fact, he has worked hard to achieve it. He has fought family, friends, and well meaning folk like you who keep trying to ‘rescue’ him.”
“Wow. I never knew. I’d never thought about it. I just thought he was like me.”
“He is like you, a man making choices and living with the consequences. But unlike you, he has little compassion for others. It doesn’t bother him that he wounds your conscience. To him, the joke’s on you.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“It’s my Christmas present to you!”
“What’s the gift?”
“Deliverance from false guilt! Compassion is good. Genuine guilt is good. But don’t waste your limited amount of compassion on the undeserving. Ask questions, interview those who visit your kitchen. You need to get out from behind the counter and get to know who you’re serving. Some of your myths will be shattered, and you might find a few down-and-outers who are looking for a hand up, not a hand out.”
“Hmmm… good points. When I get over this fever, I just might have to make a few changes. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Times change, but the human heart doesn’t. Oh my. Look at the time. I’ve got to fly. My next appointment is in 30 minutes up in San Francisco.”
And poof! Just like that he was gone, and I was back in my bed, sweating out the fever. At least I wasn’t in a big hurry to get better. After all, tomorrow was Christmas!