By Aldis Petriceks
Pain, Poverty, and Personhood in Silicon ValleyUploaded: Sep 28, 2017
I am the wrong person to write this blog.
Welcome to Stories of Hope, my new series on the Palo Alto Online. This blog has a very specific purpose, which I want to explain in this inaugural post. Don’t worry – if you’re lucky, you need not put up with me much more after this piece. Instead, you will be transported into the lives of much more interesting people. Those people will speak to you – well, technically to me – and I recommend you listen. Daily, they fight Goliath-sized battles. Some, against the uncertainty of illness and disability; others, the elephant in Silicon Valley’s unaffordable room: poverty and homelessness. Certain individuals will be young; others, old. Some will be flamboyant; others, reserved. But their stories all must be told. I am here to tell them; I am the wrong person to write this blog.
When faced with the fragility and discomfort of the human condition, our culture often looks the other way. Stories of Hope aims to look two sets of people, who know that condition well, right in the eye. The first group includes the poor and the homeless: poverty and inequality are growing issues in our region. Amidst a booming tech industry and superfluous wealth, these people inhabit a wholly different world; we cannot ignore them, without ignoring our shared humanity first.
The second group: the sick and the disabled. People facing illness might have homes; they might have led long, charmed lives. But in a society which glorifies youth and comfort, impermanence and suffering are not exceedingly popular. As a result, conversations about vulnerability, sickness, and dying are avoided – as if they were insults to life and living. But from my experience as a hospice volunteer, I’ve found the opposite to be true: When healthy people ignore illness, the ill are not the sole victims. When death or illness become a taboo topics, society finds itself unprepared for one of life’s inevitabilities.
In short, I hope to shed light on two groups, which themselves illuminate different shades of the human condition. I want to know what the homeless man on the street sees, when I avoid his eye contact; I want to show that the dying woman is still living. Each post in this blog will feature narratives of a different person, from one of these two groups. Every individual will live in Silicon Valley, and many will be found right around Palo Alto. As best I can, I will let these individuals tell their own stories – I carry enough bias and privilege as is.
Which brings me back to my original, unexplained statement: why am I the wrong person to write this blog? There are many reasons, but I’ll just roll off a few. I am a privileged, Caucasian-looking male; I am, for the most part, in perfect health; I have never spent a night on the street, nor in the hospital. Simply put, I have no firsthand experience regarding the subject matter. The people whom I write about are, so to speak, more human than I.
But maybe, just maybe, that makes me the perfect person for this blog. Perhaps I represent – in some weird sense – society at large: Western society not only avoids discussing illness and poverty, it cringes at their mention. Silicon Valley’s culture focuses on future and profit, thus ignoring present and poverty. I, like that culture, have something to learn. Those fighting life’s hardest battles can teach us both.
My misconceptions surrounding poverty and illness are not unique, but certainly misinformed. And so, when I consider what this experience might teach me, rapper Sho Baraka comes to mind: “A poor man sat me down and taught me about dignity / A blind man’s vision taught me all about imagery” (Piano Break, 33 A.D., 2016). Life’s hardships are not to be romanticized – I’ve spent enough time with both the homeless and the dying to know that much. But there are lessons which go unlearned, when life goes unexamined. Poverty is a problem which plagues every civilization; death is one of the few universal experiences. If we can’t escape these pains, maybe we should learn from those who know them best.
In a New York Times article last year, UCSF Palliative Care physician BJ Miller – a triple-amputee since college – reflected on his pain, and the pain of his patients, as a “variation on a theme we all deal with – to be human is really hard.” So many in Palo Alto know this. We all fight personal giants in some form. But our day-to-day lives and conversations often avoid that deep, unifying fact. We can forget that there are others, just like us, hurting in different – yet familiar – ways. Critical opportunities are then missed: chances to grow through our own trials, and to bear the burdens of others facing theirs. We can help the poor – through service, advocacy, and compassion. We can help the sick – through care, and attention to what matters at life’s end.
In this blog, you will hear stories of real, unabridged life. Those stories may at times make you (and myself, for that matter) feel awkward, or uncomfortable. But life isn’t clean and smooth; life is often clumsy and chafed. In hearing these stories, let’s share that in that chafe. Let’s examine truths, exemplified by our community members – and lies we might be telling ourselves. Along the way, we might find ways to provide a salve for those hurting in our community. Let’s do that too.
Welcome to Stories of Hope. I am the wrong person to write this blog, but I know this blog will be filled with all the right people.