Jeffrey Dupra: The whole picture
Last Saturday I watched and waited collectively with others in our community as the Auburn Fire spread rapidly into Empire Mine Sate Park. Collectively, we thought of those whose homes and lives lay potentially in harm’s way, and envisioned ourselves, our loved ones, our property, our possessions under threat of fire and smoke. Collectively, we weren’t surprised to learn that the fire had started in a homeless camp.
As this information became known, collectively we reacted.
Consider how a mosaic is, collectively, a larger, unified image generated by the juxtaposition of smaller, intrinsically different pieces. At a distance the image makes sense at a glance, while up close the pieces appear disconnected, even unrelated. Within the larger image any single piece, taken alone, lacks the defining contrast and depth present in the whole. It’s impossible to fully understand the complexity of the mosaic in its entirety based upon the single shade, color and quality of any one of its individual pieces. When on Saturday evening an arrest was made in connection to the Auburn Fire, as a community we collectively shared a reactionary, justified, predictable response; we heard the words “transient” and “fire,” mere and significant pieces of the whole, and filled in the blanks, which were themselves, significant pieces.
This publication used its pages to assuage fear and concern, printing the story under the banner — “Admission of Guilt.” I understand and appreciate that this headline is effective journalism certain to sell products and fulfill the essential role of the press to disseminate information and maintain an informed public. Like many headlines it prioritizes the sensational — and salesmanship — at the expense of comprehensive understanding of “why” and “how” the issues of our world exist and persist parallel to wealth, power and resources as are found in our world, collectively, today. “Guilt” is similar to but different than the realities of responsibility. A single individual is capable of being guilty of something for which many others share collective responsibility. “Because he’s homeless …” is as much a collective indictment of a community, as it’s a way of explaining and blaming an individual, or assessing the guilt of their actions.
That there are people in our community without the safety and resources of a home is not a reality indicative of singular cause and effect. It’s not as simple as “bad choices = homeless.” We’ve all endured forces and events, precipitated by people and environments that exceed the ability of choices to prevent them. Furthermore we all have the capacity to imagine something worse than our misfortunes, and beyond that, the ability to know — not suspect to know — that what we can only imagine for ourselves has actually happened, is actively happening to another. Oversimplification and stereotype are the primary colors of prejudice.
Collectively, we are fortunate that lives and homes weren’t lost. Collectively, we are justified to have been afraid and to be angry now. And we are, collectively, responsible for whatever events — be them tragic and unforeseen or carefully planned and prosperous — affect our community. Such is the story of human beings; we’re linked beyond our ability to disengage and disassociate. Providing basic care and compassion for those whose need is greatest, whose suffering exceeds our own is the greatest example available of the truth of this idea. Are we not made stronger as a whole by sacrificing as individuals?
It’s a piece of the whole that the Auburn Fire was started in a homeless camp, by an individual who though labeled “transient,” is — I can assure you — as dynamically and miraculously human as you and I. It’s a piece of the whole that the fire, though preventable, was caused as a result of human carelessness. And it’s a piece — my piece — that the cause, the spark that originated the fire, came from something more than a mere and simple cigarette.
Somewhere I walked past something without stopping. Once I did and gave less than I could have. Another time I rushed to judge, explain and control something that was more than I gave it credit for. If this is true — of all of us, or of any of us — as it is for me, then like myself you may be finding out that even though you did not start the Auburn Fire, somewhere, somehow, you may have contributed in even the slightest way to our collective failure to prevent it.
And that may be much more than a piece of the whole. Indeed that may be the whole picture.
Jeffrey Wanzer Dupra lives in Nevada City.
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