There’s an Italian cafe that I love to start my day in when I visit London. It’s my habit to go there at 8am before my workday begins. They only play classical music before mid-morning on their splendid sound system. The rhythm of cascading water melds with violins as fountains spout from stone walls. The open kitchen is expansive with an energetic vibe. It’s an elegant place. Numerous chefs produce an abundance of bread, curled sweet croissants, olive studded pizza, crostini, tarts laced with fresh fruits, and small fat puddings that waddle in syrup. Staff buzz about serving patrons on the long communal tables with tall comfortable stools that have padded backrests. I was in the cafe last week when I noticed a dishevelled man come in and approach the person closest to him, another man who had just ordered his second coffee. They spoke briefly before the customer stood, approached the counter and ordered food for the man who had now sat down facing the street with his head in his hands. The classical music played on as I stared at his hunched back and wondered whose baby he once was.
The waiting staff were quickly looking at each other. Shooting glances that ricocheted sharply around the room. I noticed the amiable young man who’d served me roll his eyes at someone else. But what could they do? The food was paid for. As the man who bought it walked passed me to leave I told him how good it was to witness his kindness. He replied, ‘The man was hungry.’ I continued to stare at the back of the dozing figure. He’d eaten two pastries and a half finished bottle of Coke was left close to his elbow. I wondered what sort of courage it took to walk into such an establishment and beg for food, or what sort of desperation? When I’d gathered my things to leave, I spoke to the young man who had rolled his eyes and to his female colleague. ‘I know this might be difficult for you as a business and I’m glad he hasn’t been thrown out.’ I approached the limp figure and rested the palm of my hand, very gently, against his sagging shoulder. He stirred, his head titled in my direction and foggy eyes found their focus in mine. A swathe of dried saliva was smeared across his dark skin to the side of his mouth. His forehead was furrowed with dust. I pressed some money into his hand and the smallest of lights illuminated his expression. I repeated my mantra to the floor manager who was stood to the side of me, ‘I know this might be difficult for you as a business. But his life is shit and mine isn’t. It’s the least I can do.’ Not for one moment did it feel like enough. Then I stepped into the busy Soho street with other people like me heading to air conditioned offices with free magazines the other side of the security barrier. The lanyard around my neck would give me access to the lifts, the kitchen, organic coffee, fresh fruit, paleo bars and chilled drinks in full fridges. Every barrier I encountered that separated me from these benefits would yield to the pass I had in my possession. I thought about some of the other lanyards I wear, the ones I often forget about: my skin colour, my education, my age, my financial standing, my gender, my sexual orientation, my health. I thought about the doors these lanyards open and the privileges they afford me. Yes, some of these privileges I’ve earned and many, many of them I haven’t. I’ve simply inherited them, or built them from a foundation that was bequeathed to me.
Arnie Mindell, the father of Process Psychology , describes the sum of a person’s privileges as ‘rank’. Generally the greater rank we have, the more we want of it and the less we recognise the advantages it gives us. I recently came across an article that reinforced this viewpoint, with a very striking title, ‘When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels like Oppression.’ It caught my attention immediately because I know I’ve been on both sides of this particular table. The author explained that when someone in a mainstream position is asked to ‘move-over’ or give something up in favour of someone from a non-mainstream group, they feel affronted, outraged and ‘picked-on’ simply because they’re not used to this experience. As I had sat, staring at the fallen back of the destitute man in the cafe, I was being asked to forfeit the social insulation I can take for granted. I was being asked to give up my comfort, if only for the duration of a cappuccino. Mindell’s work has always brought me challenge and reprieve in equal measure. He is explicit; feeling guilty about the privileges we enjoy is not necessary. Quite the opposite in fact, because this sort of reactive guilt usually leads to paralysis or denial. Instead, Mindell advocates that we celebrate our privileges and plough our attention into noticing the rank we have so we can commit to using it productively. Plainly put he tells us, ‘If you use rank consciously, it’s medicine. Otherwise it’s poison.’ The customer who bought the stranger breakfast chose the former. The stark and simple explanation he offered for doing so still rings in my heart this morning: ‘The man was hungry.’