Recently, while I was spending some time at a local coffee shop, a homeless person came up to my table outside and asked me for change. I was sitting next to three people I didn’t know. Of course, I instantly thought about what my action would mean to them, not just what it would mean to me (and are these not two sides of the same coin anyway?).

Lots of questions run through one’s head, such as, “Why should I have to give away my money – do I have a moral obligation or no?” and “What will this person do with the money?” (We’re always told the money will just go to support an addiction or some other seedy activity). Eventually I decided that I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to give the person some change. So I did.

And then he pressed me further, asking if I had any more. This hadn’t happened to me before – couldn’t he just go away and stop making me feel awkward? So I did it again, handing him a dollar bill, since he specifically asked for a dollar and I just didn’t want to lie and hide it!

At any rate, the real motivation is the first: wanting to stop the awkwardness, wanting to stop feelings of guilt and general uneasiness. I’m sure this is a fairly typical experience. What makes this time interesting is what came next.

I walked into the indoor section of the café to go to the bathroom. On the way, an elderly woman approached me with something to say. This same woman I had seen probably four out of the five consecutive days I had been visiting this café (sad, I know).

I’d previously overheard her talking with another frequent patron about taking a photo of the sky, since it looked so intriguing; the next day she brought in that photo, blown up and with several copies, and showed it to the same man. She always dressed comfortably and was in a rather contented, cheery mood.

She seemed to have a lot of time on her hands, so I figured she was retired. But when she approached me after my interaction with the homeless man, she immediately reprimanded me for giving money to him: “You shouldn’t give money to people like him. That guy comes around five days a week, sometimes multiple times a day. You know, all he’ll do is go out and buy cigarettes.”

I was taken aback for multiple reasons: first, why had she bothered to confront me at this moment, when there were plenty of chances for her to introduce herself to me in more pleasant circumstances?; second, why had she needed to respond to my action so quickly, pushing her way through – rather rudely – the cramped section in front of the cashier?; third, why does she care what I do with my money (surely it’s not as bad as buying a $4 latte…)?; but lastly and most importantly – how does she know that’s what he’ll spend it on? This last question was the one that got me thinking.

In my most recent article on this blog I shed some light on the Lacanian notion of the Real, which is the limit or horizon of the subject’s symbolic existence past which exists pure impossibility, and thus is something that must be continuously avoided by the subject.

What this avoidance of the Real demands is a narrativization of the traumatic possibility that there is really nothing we could know that exists outside our knowledge of it; that all sense is mere “belief” and as such has no guarantee in material reality (in Heidegger’s words, “there is no ontological guarantee for the ontic” – there is no complete knowledge that could know itself to be complete… consciousness cannot know itself as truth).

What we actually encounter is not the totality of the Real (this would be death), but rather just ‘little pieces’ of the Real, unexpected disturbances in consciousness, things heretofore known to be impossibilities. Such disturbances are thus in a sense ‘untrue truths,’ ‘unreal realities.’ The particular pattern of the subject’s circling around these impossibilities is the subject’s ‘symptomal torsion,’ the changes in its movement – literal and figurative – within (symbolic) space.

Back to the story above: can we detect an impossible trauma as the cause of the woman’s frankly symptomatic interaction with me in the coffee shop? She obviously thought it was urgent to correct my behavior, to make me feel guilty – wrong, and therefore culpable – for giving money to the homeless man. I had already acted out of guilt when I gave him money; was it really necessary for her to make me feel guilty for feeling guilty?

Perhaps she saw my decision to act the way I did as a threat to her understanding of the way things should happen. But more importantly, I threatened her enjoyment: the way I acted suggested that one might rightly give money to a homeless person; if it were suggested – by my action, or by someone’s political activism, etc. – that her narrativized understanding of the way society works were wrong, how would she feel?

Would she herself not begin to feel guilty for choosing not to give the money to the homeless? Was she not, in this particular situation, attempting to avoid feelings of sadness and guilt by convincing herself – and imposing her manner of seeing the world on me – that she had acted rightly in deciding not to give money to the homeless man?

By rushing to tell me what I should have done differently, she thus sadistically kept tabs on me, restricting my freedom by pulling me into her vulnerable understanding of the world in order to make it less vulnerable, containing the threat my action/belief posed as a traumatic excess for her, a thing not understood, a possibility outside the realm of possibility…

This brings me, lastly, to the question that got me on this train of thought: how does she know that the homeless man will spend the money on cigarettes? Has she ever bothered to follow a homeless person and watch what they buy? To be sure, this is fictionalization at its purest: one is to assume that all homeless people spend their money that way, in order to reassure oneself that one is in the right when choosing not to give money to the homeless.

In this way, one’s guilt is displaced onto the big Other, taken care of by the societal narrative, so that one doesn’t have to confront the problem on one’s own.

But more than just preventing an uncomfortable feeling of guilt, this narrative functions to protect the subject from the slightest annoyance. That is, the protection is not simply from the guilt of choosing not to give money, but from the annoyance of having to make a choice at all, having to go through the – however brief – agony of making a choice, which implies considering alternatives, such as that one might be wrong – or, in the extreme, that there should even exist something at all to make one feel uncomfortable in a certain situation: “Why can’t I just be left alone?”

Is this not also the state of things in liberal societies? “Tolerance” is not about accepting people into the fabric of society, making that society more diverse. What tolerance does it to keep people at a proper distance so that we don’t have to be bothered by them.

Liberalism’s “leave me alone” policy toward government is therefore its same policy with respect to social life: feel free to do what you want, to celebrate your ethnic culture, your sexual orientation, etc., but don’t go too far: it’s okay if you’re Hispanic, but why can’t you speak English?; it’s okay if you’re gay, but why do you have to be so flamboyant?; it’s okay if you’ve lost your job and you’re financially destitute, but for God’s sake don’t disturb my enjoyment by coming into close contact with me, by asking me for change.

In other words, join our (notion of) society as we want you to see it. Otherwise, you risk showing society for what it actually is, complete with its traumas and symptoms.