Alan Duff: Wake up and smell the coffee - life cannot be that bad

Is your coffee giving you cause for concern or is your worry about piffling things more an over-reaction?
Is your coffee giving you cause for concern or is your worry about piffling things more an over-reaction?

Your latte with soya not as perfect as yesterday's? Are your suburb's capital gains at a lower percentage than what you think is an inferior suburb?

Well, sit at an outside bar or cafe table and observe your fellow First Worlders and be glad.

The guy in his mid-20s in a wheelchair - you wonder was it a car crash, a rugby tackle or a collapsed scrum? How does he look at the future when his every dream is crushed? Think he cares about your coffee quality, how much unearned money you made from your house? He's just trying to stay sane.

The overweight, unattractive 19-year-old girl buddies? What are their thoughts if not downright permanently miserable?

They want a partner, not a physical copy of each other. Eating is their comfort. Like talking and laughing loudly is.

But at home alone the mask falls off and misery takes over, along with the packets of never-satisfying sugary treats. She didn't ask to be unattractive. She can't help nature's cruel partner-selection process. Her life effectively stopped from week one of school, experiencing the cruelty of other kids.

That gaunt-faced, middle-aged guy keeps crossing your vision, giving you, everyone, the same funny look. Searching for his lost self in every face? Companionship? A likely receptive person he can pour his heart out to? Was he severely traumatised as a kid? Does he have a mental problem, a social disorder?

He sure as hell isn't pissed off that his coffee isn't perfect. He doesn't own his own home to be worried about his capital gain. He just wants someone to talk to and even then, in the back of his roiling mind, knows he can't ever find the words to express his pain.

That big Maori dude with a gang facial tattoo sitting in Queen St with his begging cup? Back in the day he was "Da Man" whose every foul deed was approved by his gang brothers. He woke each day in a fog from booze and drugs but knew one thing: he belonged.

The bodily-intake excesses got out of control. In prison there was plenty of stuff available to stay "out of it". Being out of facing the pain, let alone the damage, of a horrific childhood. On the outside? Well, drugs is the name of the gang game and members get to wallow in the stuff.

There are the severely disabled, disfigured, mentally unwell, every kind of social misfit.

But it keeps draining out every last bit of his soul, until one day he wakes up and the core of him is gone. And just bare naked truth stands there. That's the beggar you can't bear to give the price of a cup of your precious coffee. He has - had - a story. But no-one wants to hear it.

How would you like to be that girl afflicted with cerebral palsy? Yet where does she get that beatific smile from? Why does she appear so saintly, happy with her lot? Did you catch her on a day when her limited movement was slightly freer? What are her sleeping dreams about? Her waking ones? Is her heart filled with envy of the able-bodied? You can bet she isn't thinking about coffee quality and how much her house has gone up this week.

What if genetically, you lack social awareness? What if it was beaten out of you? How do you connect to the rest of the world? Who listens, who understands, if you don't have the capacity to express yourself without breaking some social rule? Where do you fit? On the outside, pal. Without a key.

The elderly spinster living in a tiny council unit who never gets visitors, has no one to celebrate birthdays or Christmas with. No family members who pop in from time to time and together add up to a reasonably full emotional life. The handful of friends is down to one, or none at all, they've all died or moved away. And they weren't such close friends anyway, or they'd write.

How lonely is life to the profoundly deaf, in that world of total silence? While we, the lucky normal of hearing, get to socialise, listen to the orchestras of living, throbbing humanity, insects, animals, wind, rain, thunder; the irony of appreciating what we call silence.

There are the severely disabled, disfigured, mentally unwell, every kind of social misfit. Marching in the same single column are the traumatised, the haunted, the inconsolably sad, the congenitally melancholic, the troubled and anguished, the ones made angry growing up in an angry household.

Drink in each lucky moment, folks. Stop sweating the small things or getting vexed over piffling matters. You don't know how lucky you are.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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