I was in California this weekend to look at cars with my youngest son, his friends, and their dads. Fast cars, historic cars, unique cars, expensive cars. Driving between locations we also saw some spectacular cars on the street. What we also saw on the street were human beings living in tents, broken down vehicles, makeshift shelters, and even just sleeping on benches or the sidewalk. Pictures cannot communicate what it’s like. You must see it for yourself.
West LA, specifically Burbank and Hollywood, is home to a disproportionate number of very expensive cars. There are two places that take the cake. The Petersen Automotive Museum is home to about 400 cars ranging from old to new, where every single car is unique, special, or historic. It is one of the best museums of any kind I have ever seen.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jay Leno’s Garage. Mr. Leno has collected about 200 cars and 200 motorcycles in a private collection that is not open to the public. How we got a chance to see Jay Leno’s collection (and meet Jay Leno) is a story for another time, but talking with him about cars, shaking his hand, and getting our picture with him was the high point of the trip.
We also got a chance to see the Pacific Ocean (my son had never been), eat and ride the coaster on the Santa Monica Pier, and watch the new Bond movie in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Pretty cool fall break trip by any standard. Yet everywhere we went, we were constantly reminded of the disparity between people driving a McLaren down Wilshire Blvd and the man sleeping on Wilshire Blvd.
For nearly four decades of my life, I held a very simple and rigid view of the people whose lives were economically much different than mine. I believed a version of the American Dream (though it is mostly a lie) that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. I believed that my value as a human was directly related to what I produced and accomplished. I believed the same thing about other people.
I believed that the reason I wasn’t living on the street was because I was smart, capable, and hard working. Therefore, if you were living on the street, you must be stupid, incompetent, and lazy. If I wanted to own 400 cars and motorcycles like Jay Leno, I just had to apply myself and I could make that happen. Therefore, if you wanted different circumstances, possessions, or experiences, you just needed to work harder too.
There is one significant problem with this belief. It is not true.
My value as a human being is not related to my accomplishments. Or my race, or gender, or education, or background, or skills, or economic status, or even the decisions I make (good or bad). My value is intrinsic and equal. Intrinsic, in that it is within me, not something I acquire and put on. Equal, in that it is the same as every other human being who has ever lived, is living, or will live.
People like Jay Leno worked hard for sure. Only there were other factors, people, and circumstances that lead to his success and ability to acquire what he has. I am certain there are people living on the streets tonight in LA who have worked hard, are intelligent, and have done their best, yet find themselves in tragic circumstances.
You can find plenty of poor decisions, wrong turns, and missteps on the streets of any major city to “explain” away the condition these people are living in. If you are honest with yourself though, you too have made poor choices, mistakes, and even intentional detours. The difference is the community you had to backstop you when you failed or fell.
Maybe it was a teacher or mentor who encouraged and believed in you. Maybe it was a parent who paid for your education or helped you with your first car. Maybe it was a friend who bailed you out of jail or kept you from getting there in the first place. Maybe it was just a community who was there when you needed help, encouragement, or a loan.
Whoever or whatever it was, you did not get where you are alone. You did not get where you are on just your own merits, just your own intellect, or just your own effort. Certain things had to go your way, and certain people had to be in the right place at the right time for this to happen for you. You were not self-made; you were blessed into your current condition.
So, if you didn’t cause your own good fortune, maybe the people on the street didn’t cause their bad. Maybe while someone had your back, no one had theirs. Maybe the circumstances and relationships that got you through weren’t available to them. Maybe you could be where they are, and they could be where you are if just a few things had been different. Things you didn’t create or orchestrate. Maybe.
As I saw the people living on the street in LA, I was struck by the thought that their value is equal to mine, but their equipping is not. It’s like asking someone to race a marathon against a trained champion marathoner and making them do it barefoot and without water. They may be running the same race course, but they are not running the same race. It must create a deep sense of despair to be struggling to keep your family together and find something to eat on the streets of LA, while cars costing hundreds of thousands of dollars drive by.
I don’t have a solution for homelessness, or poverty, or hunger, or any of the socio-economic problems that plague humans, but I do know what doesn’t work: pride. Believing that I am superior to someone else precludes me being able to see myself in them, and them in me. However, if I am willing to start with the belief of equal value, then I might find a way to be the support for someone else. Whatever the solutions are, they all start with relationship and empathy. Caring for others is the path to removing the disparity and the despair, and it is The Kimray Way.