I’d only planned to be in Montreal for one month, so when the stay stretched longer I had to find a place to stay.
It’s hard to find somewhere with good location/price/furnished for month-to-month rental, so I end up living with another guy for one transitory month.
Let’s call him Louie.
Louie is probably in his late 20s, he’s black and comes from France. He’s friendly and seems in a pretty good mood most of the time.
I’m not sure what Louie does for work, but some mornings he’s up very early – 5am – while some days he doesn’t work at all. His sleep schedule is accordingly irregular.
Louie doesn’t exercise and is probably about 60 or 70 pounds overweight. His diet is almost entirely carbohydrates and simple sugars – cookies, candy, white bread and soda.
He cooks, but cooks a nearly identical meal of tomato sauce, pork, chicken or beef and lots and lots of white rice. He eats some and then leaves the rest on the stove, unattended and unrefrigerated for several consecutive days and nights – this behaviour will forever remain a mystery to me.
Aside from work, Louie spends his time watching TV, playing on his phone or talking on the phone for hours at a time. It’s often some combination of all three at once – watching TV with headphones in, on his phone at the same time.
Within Louie’s immediate experience, the TV never goes off. When he’s in his room with the door closed, I can still hear the other TV in there. He leaves the TV on when he’s out of the house. Falls asleep with the TV on. Wakes up with the TV on.
Early on in my stay, Louie asks me to lend him money to pay his rent. He doesn’t get paycheck until next week, he says, and he’s sent all his money home to his family in France.
I’ve known Louie for about a week at this point, his rent is almost five hundred dollars and so in awkward French I refuse. Due to the language barrier or maybe some other reason, he takes this to mean that I don’t have the money, a misunderstanding that suits me just fine.
Later the same day he asks again, for $50 this time. Partly out of sympathy but mostly just wanting to be left alone I give it to him, never expecting to see the money again. I don’t.
Now I start to notice that Louie’s section of the fridge is slowly becoming empty. There is a pot of white rice, a piece of lunch meat so old and dry that it’s cracked like hard plastic and the dregs of a 2L Coke bottle and that’s about it.
Louie now begins to periodically appear in the kitchen and ask me for food. He emerges from his room right at the point I’m finished cooking, smiling encouragingly and motioning with his fingers – “just a little bit”.
This is ingratiating and now I start getting annoyed. Why didn’t he keep enough money to at least buy food? Why doesn’t he even take care of the food he does have?
One evening Louie is sitting in the kitchen and shows me something he’s typed out on his phone. In broken English it says that he’s getting paid in two days, but needs me to give him $20 for food until then.
I tell him he can take some food from the cupboard. All I have in my wallet is a $5 bill which I offer him; he accepts and goes immediately to the grocery store. I tell him that after this I can’t lend him any more money.
It’s around this time that my internal dialogue – completely independent of any input from me – starts referring to Louie as “fuckhead”.
I get home at the end of the day and the voice in my head says, “I wonder if fuckhead is here.”
There are dirty dishes in the kitchen and the voice says, “Fuckhead doesn’t do his dishes.”
Fuckhead this, fuckhead that.
I don’t actually have that much ill will towards Louie at this point, which makes this interesting. I don’t think I should be referring to him as “fuckhead”, nor do I really want to be. The thoughts also usually come along with some anger or irritation that is not desirable for me either.
I start using it as a mindfulness exercise – every time my mind says “fuckhead” I try to catch myself. When I succeed the negative emotions disappear and I am free, at least temporarily, from that particular thought loop.
It’s often only a few seconds before I get sucked right back in to a similar narrative, negative emotions and all. I watch this happen again and again and am reminded of what Alan Watts says about being “captivated by the drama”.
I also start to wonder how well Louie’s behaviour represents the average, in North America at least. Is this what the average person is like?
It’s impossible for us to get a clear perspective on what’s normal or average because as individuals we are always surrounded by people who are like us.
Our friends behave more or less as we do and it’s rare to find yourself in such close quarters with someone whose behaviours are so different from your own. It seems that in almost every encounter with Louie, direct or indirect, brings out some contrast between us.
I make salad and exercise in the park. Louie watches TV and eats junk. I hardly drink and Louie drinks every day.
I meditate, see friends, cook food and clean dishes. He plays on his phone, talks on his phone, sleeps. I use a standing desk and he sits. His job has rough hours and I can choose my own hours.
My days are busy with variety while his, from the outside at least, look like a painfully boring version of Groundhog Day. I’m striving to move forward and Louie is sitting still, watching TV.
I could go on in detail but there is not much point. You get the idea – I am at one extreme, for better or for worse, and he’s at the other.
These are factual statements about reality but interestingly it actually makes me uncomfortable to spell it out like this. It seems unnecessarily egotistical – almost disgustingly so – to keep drawing the comparison, especially in writing now.
Yet this is what was happening, and this is what my mind was doing, all month long.
Later a friend and I have taken some psilocybin mushrooms and I wonder about my judgements of Louie.
How much am I getting off on being “better” than this guy?
Probably somewhat, I realize, even with the awareness of it while it is happening. I don’t “like” living with him, but part of my ego feeds on it because it lets me keep making favourable comparisons between Louie and myself.
I start thinking about value judgements in general.
It begs the question – can you recognize differences in reality and make comparisons that are truly free of value judgement?
Can you be a neutral observer when you are always observing as you?
Can you separate yourself from the ‘data’ – if your lifestyle, preferences and choices, who you are “as a person” – are a crucial part of the data?
My friend wonders how Louie justifies his behaviour to himself. What does he think when he sees the differences between us? Does he notice them at all?
I say that he doesn’t – I don’t think he thinks about it at all. He follows habits and unconsciously lives out patterns of behaviour the same way almost everyone does. He is reactionary and not aware of what he’s doing or where he’s going most if any of the time.
My theory is confirmed (?) in one of my last interactions with Louie. Around the end of the month, it’s late in the evening and I’ve finished making some food for the next day. I walk past Louie in the living room and glance at the TV.
As I reach the door of my room, he looks up quizzically and says in French, “You don’t watch TV?”
It’s taken him an entire month to notice this! says the cynical voice in my head.
From one perspective, Louie is a fuckhead. He’s wasting all his time, poisoning his consciousness with TV and slowly killing himself with the garbage he eats.
Don’t you realize what that’s doing to you? I would think as I heard the TV. Louie freely gives away his most valuable resource, and in return gets to have his thoughts and beliefs decided for him by other people.
He’s taken his independence, his freedom and autonomy and handed it over to whatever noise and light is streaming out of the box.
Louie should make better choices and spend his time more wisely. He should get comfortable being alone with himself, free of distraction. He should read books and eat healthier food.
He should plan, set goals and trade instant gratification for long term gain. He should work to improve his circumstances in life.
This would benefit him personally and everyone around him. He’d be able to send more money to his family and enjoy better living conditions. He wouldn’t have to ask a stranger for food and money.
From another perspective, none of this is Louie’s fault. He didn’t decide for his life to unfold like this – none of us do.
Louie didn’t choose his parents or his genes. He didn’t choose the circumstances he grew up in, the beliefs he was given as a child or whatever model of the world was implanted in his head.
Louie’s friends and family likely behave just like him. This is the “way to live” for them – it’s “the way things are”.
You can learn anything on the internet, but Louie probably never learned how to learn. He just wasn’t exposed to the ideas necessary for that to happen. Is that his fault?
It doesn’t occur to him that some of the time spent watching TV or talking on the phone could be spent making more money.
The world is full of opportunities, for Louie and for everyone. But he likely doesn’t see the opportunities as possibilities – at least not realistic ones for himself.
The thoughts are literally not in his reality. Is he to blame for that?
There are millions of potential thoughts you or I could have, but do not. Is that our “fault”?
If Louie could do something differently, he would. If the ideas or the will necessary to live differently could enter his head, they would. Maybe they will.
Until then though, he’ll stay like this.