The Other Side of the Mountain

We were walking to a nearby restaurant when my wife and I spotted a drunken man asleep on the sidewalk. At almost the same moment, we saw a TV reporter and her cameraman, who were out on the town seeking public comment. The clip that showed on the news that night had me saying that yes, since the misuse of alcohol is responsible for public drunkenness, then profits from the sale of alcohol would be a logical means of supporting a detox center such as the one proposed for Asheville.

But the evening’s adventure got me thinking about a recurring theme in our community: dependence and its effects. The police officer who dealt with the drunken man said he’d encountered this particular citizen more times than he could count. The man’s life is totally taken over by alcohol, which he apparently depends on to find the will to continue living.

How sad! But this situation is far from unique. Already in my short life, I’ve been deprived of a favorite uncle (by his dependence on cigarettes) and of the company of a smart, pleasant colleague and friend (by his dependence on gin). What a waste!

Then again, there are many ways to be dependent in today’s society: alcohol, tobacco, other legal drugs, illegal drugs, volunteer assistance and government assistance, to name only a few.

The latter two items may require some explanation. By not-necessarily-helpful volunteer assistance, I refer, for example, to individuals and groups involved in feeding our downtown, Pritchard Park ne’er-do-wells. If you watch the park during the warmer months, you’ll find that it practically empties at lunchtime and dinnertime. Undoubtedly, some of the folks who get fed each day do need a handout (and a hand up). But do people who sit around talking to one another for hours at a stretch really need such assistance day after day after day? They’ve become dependent on the several organizations that feed them — and in the long run, that’s not healthy for either the individuals or our community. Whatever initiative and creativity these people used to have has been replaced by the habit of looking to someone else to supply them with food for the day.

At a recent meeting of the Downtown Social Issues Task Force, the discussion touched on several categories of panhandling: need-based, chronic and professional (like the young man who hit me up several times within a single week). “Have you ever been panhandled by a need-based panhandler?” I asked. “Don’t they all go to the churches first?” Need-based panhandling at least shows some initiative, but I’ve come to believe that the downtown ne’er-do-wells have simply forgotten how to care for themselves, and at this point, they don’t even try.

As I write this, I’m watching the lifesaving helicopter deliver someone to Mission Hospitals. But this kind of paid or volunteer assistance is NOT what I’m talking about! There are things that ONLY government can do for us, and each and every one of us has times when we need all the help we can get — whether public, private or whatever. So hooray for firefighters, police officers and the like!

Unfortunately, every level of dependence further reduces initiative. And dependence on government seems especially deadening. “I can’t help that — it’s up to the government.” … “We can’t fix that — only the government can help.” But every “handout” from the government becomes one more little string tying you down, like the ones the Lilliputians used on Gulliver.

And somehow, dependence on government seems to be exacerbated by living in a city. You get used to having to interact with government more frequently and pretty soon, you start thinking of governmental solutions first, rather than individual ones. It’s a slippery slope that’s all too easy to start down! Country folk seem to understand this danger more clearly than city folk.

Asheville is the most “giving” place I have ever lived. But please, don’t use this as an excuse to feed someone else’s addiction. Please don’t give money to panhandlers — ever! The drunk we saw probably got that way on alcohol purchased with cash that “loving, helpful” Ashevilleans or tourists gave him.

Of course, in this as in all things, one must strive for balance. A little coffee is probably OK; a little of (almost) anything is probably OK. But let’s face it: Here we have an exercise in rationalization. Am I dependent on coffee? Probably. Is that bad? Well, since it’s my dependence, surely it’s not that bad. As St. Augustine observed, however, “To many, total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.” The fact is, perfect moderation is quite a tough goal!

So while writing this column, I’ve decided to reduce my dependence on my own known vice (coffee). Beginning today, I commit to cutting down, following the motto I’ve shared with friends and students over the years: “Practice, practice, practice!” Will you join me by cutting down on your own dependences, so as to increase your independence?

[George Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He also serves on the Civic Center Commission.]

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