“A Saturday In May”: A Study In Engagement

Back several years ago, when visiting my daughter in Los Angeles, I was on a walk through West L.A. when I ran across a homeless man collecting cans and bottles from a dumpster. I stopped and we talked for about for fifteen minutes.

Dumpster cartoon

We talked about a lot things; the weather, the BP oil spill and eventually the economy (this was 2009 and we supposedly were coming out of the recession). His take on the economy was that he thought things were getting worse, rather than better – as what we’d been hearing from the news media. “How did you come up with that?” I asked him.

“Well I see more cheap brand cans in the garbage than I used to. Even last year when things were supposedly worse, people still drank Coke and Corona. But now it’s changed.”  It’s Shasta and Natural Light.

His astute observation was definitely not a perspective I would have gotten through my normal channels. But it made sense – and for here it was probably more accurate than any economics professor would have come up with a few blocks down the street at UCLA. But that was only the start of what turned out to be a very memorable day.

After meeting the astute homeless man I mentioned above, I caught a bus to Skid Row to meet up with a woman I knew only as Special K. Special K was a photographer and homeless activist I was introduced to through a friend. She invited me to Skid Row to help with a clean up she had organized. I’d been through Skid Row before – but never not in a car. Today there was no car, only me on foot in the midst of the largest homeless community in the United States. 

It was Saturday morning about 11:00 am, so this was about as good as it gets down there. But it was still shocking. There were people literally laying everywhere. One thing I noticed though … there were no stores; nowhere to buy anything.  But what there was, were soup lines.  There were several of them, pretty much all put together by local churches. I felt like I was transported to an area that had just been hit by a natural disaster – a hurricane or tornado or something. But there wasn’t anything natural about this … just disaster.

After about a half an hour, I found Special K and I helped her organize a crew of about fifteen others and began cleaning the sidewalks, the streets and anything that needed it. What surprised me though was there was hope. Not everybody acted down and out.  For example, there was Richard. Richard had just moved to Skid Row – not that he had to be there.  He had just moved from Laguna Beach (high rent district for those of you not familiar with Southern California). He moved here to help … it’s where he said he belonged.  

One of our most energetic workers was an attractive young woman named Veronica. I thought she was just another of the volunteers like me … but she wasn’t. She’d been living in Skid Row for the last two and half years. I commented that she didn’t look like she was in the situation she was. This was her response:  

“I may be homeless, but I don’t have to look like I’m homeless. If I look like I’m homeless, I’ll always be homeless.” 

Veronica took, “faking it till you make it” to a new level. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone like Veronica. I can say my life is better because of it. And I thought … what a day! – as I got on the bus for 90 minute ride home. I’ll just use the time to relax let everything sink in.

Twenty minutes into my ride back to West L.A., we turned onto Wilshire Blvd. Wilshire was my old stomping grounds. On two occasions during the time I lived in Los Angeles I worked on Wilshire, mainly mid-Wilshire or Koreatown. Shortly a young Asian woman and what I found out to be her parents got on the bus. They were all well-dressed, not the norm for the bus. The young woman sat in the seat next to me and her parents in front of us. They spoke what I found out later to be Mandarin. She spoke English, but they didn’t. After a brief conversation, I found out she was going to school at UCLA and for her parents, their first time in the United States. They wanted to take the bus so they could get a “real” feel for the city. This was my opening.

I spent an hour playing tour guide: The Ambassador Hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot, Koreatown, Little Indonesia, The LA Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits and even the ARCO headquarters, home of the Armand Hammer Museum and the man who launched the Los Angeles oil boom.

Around 4:00 pm I got off the bus, alternating between being mentally exhausted and hyper-stimulated. Whatever it was, I was charged up – and only had a ten minute walk to Alex’s apartment. I was wrong. Ten minutes turned into an hour.

The weather was great and people were walking their dogs and generally milling around in Alex’s neighborhood. A block from my destination I saw an old woman sitting on her 2nd floor balcony. I yelled up at her, “Good afternoon.” She responded back and inquired about my day. My response was a 90 second recap of my engagement filled day. Then she invited my up for a cup of coffee. At first I thought, I should just get home – I’m exhausted. But then, how many times does this elderly women, who looked about ninety years old, get a chance to entertain. I accepted. Margaret it turned out to be was a Holocaust survivor. For almost an hour she recounted her journey to the United States after being liberated from one of the camps. Fortunately she had only spent a short time there as a child. 

Now she lived in West L.A. nestled between Beverly Hills and UCLA, one of finest institutions of higher learning in the world. If that isn’t the American Dream … then what is?

I don’t if could have made up the stories that comprised that Saturday. But I do know that none of it came to me without an effort on my part. I initiated each the encounters I had – and because of it I’ve added so much to my life and the make-up of who I am. And that’s only one day. It would have been easier just to listen to music on my iPod consumed by my own thoughts and songs I’d heard dozens of times before. And plenty of times that’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s easier to stay in your comfort zone, your cocoon. But that Saturday … I didn’t.

We only have so many minutes in life. It’s easy to dismiss that, thinking that what’s a few minutes, or an hour or two – or even a day. What it is – is an opportunity lost. It’s an opportunity lost to become a better person, to enhance your well-being … and most of all help others to do the same.

Time is the bedrock of scarcity. If a person isn’t doing something meaningful in a given moment, they’re wasting opportunity. By meaningful, I don’t mean productive, in an economic sense. I mean important to the person, to her own well-being.  It’s not that we should be doing something meaningful with our time, it’s that we should want to. We should want to express and receive affection. We should want to be part of a group, a community. We should want to be accepted. We should want to be human.

Our goal as a society must be to accommodate this need to engage, and not instead create barriers (which often the case). We have enough of those right now with the often generationally-driven entropy of community dissolve that is makes isolation the norm rather than the exception. The higher our level of engagement is (individually and collectively), the more well (physically, mentally and socially) we will be.


Salutogenesis, Engagement and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes an approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). Specifically, the“salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus disease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Self-efficacy cloud

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The key is to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity and engagement – personally, socially and civically. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being.

In America, the established healthcare industry puts in little effort into getting people to engage directly with their health and personal well-being. Healthcare providers seem to be reluctant to relinquish control, even though transferring some of this responsibility to the patients will prove beneficial to them in the end. And it’s not just having the patient focus on themselves physically that can produce impact. Nurturing altruism and benevolence by doing good things for other people takes their minds off of their own ailments and gives them purpose beyond just their condition. For example: if they can’t actively participate in hands-on volunteer projects, then they can at least feel they’re part of the solution by experiencing the joy of giving vicariously through attendance.


Well-being, Hope and Role of Community

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement. The more engaged our residents would be … the more empowered they would be and feel they were more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner (physically or virtually). And what if opportunities to help others realize the same were part of the fabric our daily lives. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net. And what if the streets of our community became melting pots of serendipity – places where curiosity was bred and benevolence was the norm.

What if engagement and well-being was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. What if we fixated on what we “could,” rather than what we “can’t”. And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with other to help them do the same.

What we need is a conduit that can help us build towards communities of engagement. We need a vehicle that connects the dots in our communities and makes its resources not only accessible – but actually taken advantage of. We need someone or something who will help us engage.


Purpose-Driven Engagement

Amazon’s digital personal assistant is called Alexa. To say it’s been a runaway success is an understatement. Originally created to help you buy more Amazon products easier – if that was even possible, Alexa has turned into a repository of tens of thousands of possible lifestyle automation uses and applications. It controls the heat in your home, it gives you definition (by voice) and provides recipes for the finicky guests at your next dinner party. And everyday its uses only multiply.

Imagine if you had an Alexa for personal engagement. Imagine if you had a virtual partner that gathered ways you could improve yourself and the community you live in. And imagine if these were curated, prioritized to “nudge” you to do things that best helped your physical, mental and social self. These Engagements could be advice from your doctor, special deals from your neighborhood small businesses or even alerts of volunteer opportunities sponsored by a community non-profit or group your neighbors put together.

“A person is a person through other people” strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. (on Ubuntu Philosophy Michael Onyebuchi Eze)

Stairway to nowhere cartoon

In the United States we’ve elected a president who ran on a platform that he would make things different, that he was the only one who fix all our problems. He would wield his magic wand and shake his fist and all us minions scraping for crumbs on the street below would be lifted up set on the way to prosperity. It doesn’t work that way no matter who says whatever they say. The government isn’t a replacement for personal responsibility and legislation isn’t a replacement for engaging with each other and experiencing each others worlds.

Our opportunities and solutions lie in us and with those next to us. Only when we wake up to that fact … will we realize what it means to really be human and maximize our potential in this world.


Updated August 5, 2020: When I wrote this piece several years ago, it was meant to be a Call To Action to get people out and engage with both themselves and those around them in their physical environments. With the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, this is proving to be difficult on both fronts. Not only is physical engagement hazardous, the mental toll the pandemic is taking on us has made it it all too easy to retreat mentally as well. This is EXACTLY why making the extra effort to engage is so important.

The concept of a virtual partner (using all resources available) could very well be the way for our society to look ahead at the new realities of our future; rather than backward, trying to escape into the old normal. Self-efficacy and agency will be the conduit to how we evolve individually and collectively.


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5 thoughts on ““A Saturday In May”: A Study In Engagement

  1. The Dutch version of Melvin advised me to relate to you, Clay, and to inform you that I deeply enjoyed this post. I agree that we should take a salutogenic, asset based approach to sustainable health and care…and well-being. I also agree that our Oikos and Community are the places where we really belong, and health & well-being is where we life, play and work. Melvin also informed me to study the work of Dr Daniel Wahl next to Antonovsky, Harry Burns and Cormac Russell: like his “Human & Planetary Health: Towards a Salutogenic Design” and his latest book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” http://www.triarchypress.net/designing-regenerative-cultures.html . You might like them as well. Be well, Henk

    1. Sorry I forgot to back to you Henk. I really appreciate your comment. I very much value your opinions – especially on issues like this that involve what we can do to improve the human condition. Your words of wisdom and advice are always welcome and wanted. After all we’re in this together – and there’s more than enough forces fighting against us.

  2. “Informative, interesting read”
    Somehow!,”provokes”,thoughts of “otherwise”, rather than promotes.!

    Particular thought,! Homelesspeople standing in ques, in an econimicly active “Stable metropolis”, verse,s homeless people standing in ques, in a “bombed out obliterated, un economicly inactive city”.

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