What’s a life worth?

Poet John Donne observed that no man is an island, and that the loss of anyone diminishes us all.

This is, of course, a much more generous interpretation of our short time here on Earth than was expressed recently by a local columnist in the Cortez Journal, a self-appointed judge of human worth who apparently finds some others so lacking in value they deserve to freeze to death because they’ve “chosen” the life of loafers and drunken bums.

Larry Tradlener created quite a lively debate after offering his views on the patrons of the Bridge Shelter, condemning many as leeches who are only being enabled by those who provide them with a bed and a hot meal. He complained about them hanging out in the Rec Center, library or McDonald’s during the day “before they go back to the Bridge for a meal and a bed and more television,” adding, “They get government welfare, disability payments or other entitlements that you and I provide. They have money for cigarettes, booze, and cell phones but not for shelter?” (As if the price of a pack of cigarettes could get one an apartment!)

After predictably stirring up a hornet’s nest of protest by the “bleeding hearts” who genuinely care for their fellow beings, even those who have no place to rest their weary if often besotted heads – Mr. Tradlener defended himself in a follow-up letter by cataloging his own personal good works and stout self-sufficiency. (I’ve volunteered for this and that and worked really hard and done many other wonderful things to establish my well-deserved membership in the race.)

After which he added, “The ones who freeze to death in the parks and other places are drunk!” The implication clearly being that those folks deserve it.

But he brought to the forefront an issue that troubles many local citizens, and certainly the Cortez police and library staff, on a regular basis: What do we do about the city’s street people?

Mr. Tradlener takes the view that many are “freeloaders” who could work but don’t want to. While that may be true of some of them — there are certainly freeloaders at every level of society, even the highest — I reject the notion that most street people so enjoy being cold, dirty and despised that they choose it over gainful employment.

What Mr. Tradlener fails to acknowleddge is that a certain portion of Cortez’s street people – as well as society in general – have serious substance-abuse problems, sometimes accompanied with mental illness, that render them unable to hold jobs.

I myself have the fancy title of Certified Addictions Counselor and work five days a week with people who have such problems – for pay, of course. I am not so noble or well-to- do that I can “volunteer” my services and then brag about them in print. It is difficult and often painful work that occasionally (far too occasionally, unfortunately) results in seeing someone turn his or her life around. That usually means being transformed from a “bum,” in the self-righteous vernacular of Mr. Tradlener, into someone who gets a handle on the drug of choice and manages to once again experience the everyday pleasures, disappointments and pain of life, much the same as “normal” folks.

Along with my modest wages, that is the chief reward of my job – knowing I may have played a small part in a person’s decision to overcome a habit that is so seductive and tenacious it can quickly become the center of an addict’s life, overshadowing family, job, or human dignity.

An addiction is a compulsion that is conquered only through a strength that is never tested in most of us – simply because the great majority do not like the feeling of being drunk or high on heroin, meth, coke or whatever. (This is the awful fallacy of the never-ending “war on drugs,” a criminal approach to a clinical problem, and one that doesn’t put a dent in drug abuse, but keeps our for-profit prisons full. Follow the money, as the Watergate mantra went.)

Drug addiction usually involves alcohol and wreaks terrible havoc on the families of those who can’t manage to put the cork back in the bottle. Many people do not even think of alcohol as a “drug,” since it is legal and readily available, as they say, at a store near you. But booze is by any measure the most addictive, destructive substance used by people who want to temporarily alter their state of consciousness.

For the vast majority of folks, the consequences of over-indulgence are possibly suffering a hangover and feeling foolish for clumsily flirting with a friend’s spouse at a holiday party. If anything, drinking more alcohol (the old hair-of-the-dog cure) to feel better is the last thing they’d want to do.

But for a small percentage of people, one or two drinks are too many, as the AA saying goes, and a thousand are not enough. For compulsive drinkers, many who end up living on the street, the way to feel normal is just the opposite of staying away from hootch. A pint of vodka helps them become functional enough to face the day – which may consist of panhandling, committing petty crimes such as shoplifting to get that next fix, or getting arrested for outrageous acts committed under the influence.

(For those of more comfortable means, alcohol addiction may mean getting roaring drunk at home and fighting with one’s spouse. For such drinkers the consequences may be gradual, with them ultimately drinking themselves to death through one of the many physical ills alcoholism causes.)

Whatever, no one deserves contempt because of an addiction that is already making his or her life a living hell, and no one has earned the right to make the judgments Mr. Tradlener so glibly lays down.

It’s convenient to assume that the diehard addicts we see on the streets are hopeless cases, not worthy of either government help or charity, that they “choose” their existence and could quit drinking, snorting, or whatever if they merely wanted to.

The problem is, no one can divine just who’s a hopeless case, and who isn’t. But overcoming an addiction generally requires repeated attempts and a great deal of help.

I say this as one who has seen a few seemingly “worthless” human beings – stumbling, staggering, smelly addicts – succeed against the odds and go on to live happy, sober lives.

And I say this as one who has experienced the worthless bum’s existence first-hand, who has lived on the streets, who has grappled with severe addictions and managed – with more help and love than I can ever repay – to rejoin society.

Although Mr. Tradlener’s mean-spirited attitude makes me slightly skeptical of John Donne’s charitable assessment of the race, in the end I truly believe anyone can change – even those who have lived more than seven decades casting about for ways to feel superior to their fellow travelers.

Take a good look in the mirror, Larry, and reflect on the fact that although no one is perfect, no one is worthless, either, and we are capable of changing direction, often with the help of bleeding hearts — i.e., “enablers.”

David Grant Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From April 2012, David Long.