I thought of you the other day on the train. It was a Friday morning, and I was heading downtown for a press screening of David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche. (You might like that movie; its cinematography shows some affinities with your own.) I was running a little late, but I knew that if the train ran smoothly I'd only miss a couple minutes of the film. Anyhow, I noticed a man, in his mid-30s by my estimation, sitting a few rows in front of me. He was a bearish fellow, with a big belly and full beard. He was also clearly mentally retarded. When he spoke, it was loud enough for the whole car to hear, and his voice had a high-pitched, excitable quality reminiscent of a grade schooler. He carried with him a newspaper crossword puzzle, which he had drawn over in marker.
No one could avoid looking at him. For one thing, he pulled aside every stranger who passed so that he might announce, while pointing at his newspaper, "You know what I just read? 'Summer afternoon, summer afternoon . . . To me, these have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language!'" For another, he got up at every stop to pull on the emergency-door latch, as he thought this was what you needed to do to open the doors. "I got it!" he'd shout proudly, extending his hand to the exiting passengers for a high five. The train would pull out, things would go back to normal, and then: "Hey, do you know what I just read . . . ?"
I recognized from my experience of working with developmentally disabled adults that this man was likely severely retarded, meaning he had an IQ of below 50 and was as harmless as a little boy. He couldn't have been homeless—a man like that would be incapable of taking care of himself for more than a day. He must have been separated from his guardian and gotten on the train, I thought.
If that were true, though, this man was in terrible danger. Who knew what awful person could take advantage of him? Someone needed to take him to a police station or a train attendant, so he could be returned home. I should have intervened, but I didn't. I was getting concerned about missing Prince Avalanche, as shallow as that sounds. More pressingly, I was afraid how the strangers around me would react if I approached him offering help. Would they perceive me as that "awful person" or, less damningly, as some insensitive jerk having a laugh at his expense? And so, out of fear of appearing insensitive, I didn't approach him at all, fully aware I might be contributing to his misfortune.
I thought you might understand how I felt. You regard so many unfortunate people from a passive remove, yet you regard them for so long and with such curiosity that you transcend easy reactions like pity or disgust. Those who dislike you feel otherwise. To them, your attempt at sympathy is a mere pose, disguising a project of "shock for shock's sake." Their critique is that you look at your subjects without properly engaging with them. I guess this makes you no better than me or anybody else on my train.
And yet, I wouldn't condemn us passengers as bad people. Some of us—those whom the stranger pulled aside—briefly tried to see things as he did. ("Those are two beautiful words," an older woman said to him.) We came to see that, for him, pulling the emergency latch was lots of fun and a public service to boot. At least that's what I think he thought. The point is, this situation that sounds so awful in the abstract—and which civil society was too embarrassed to get involved with—was not a uniformly dire experience to the person actually at risk. Life is just too complicated and full of splendor, which is something you realize from training your perspective on anyone for long enough.
You taught me this. The way your impoverished Senegalese hustlers seem genuinely proud of their own cunning, the way your Austrian sex tourists seem to experience genuine pleasure through their sexual encounters: you may regard these things passively, but you don't condescend to them. In fact, you try to make them look beautiful.
It's a common misperception that people who work with helpless individuals are somehow more enlightened or compassionate than everyone else. When I worked with the developmentally disabled (in an untrained position that paid just over minimum wage, I should add), some of my coworkers were as foul-mouthed, superstitious, and bigoted as anyone I've ever met. Is this to say they were hypocrites or unfit to do their jobs? No, not at all. It's just to say that they were human beings, and thus full of contradictions. You seem to know this very well, as evidenced by your opening scene, which reveals the central sex tourist works with children with Down syndrome. For some viewers, this reflects the height of your cynicism; for me, it's a comforting bit of common sense.
To assist the helpless requires not some special reserve of compassion but rather a resolute lack of squeamishness. This is not to say it's easy. Overcoming that squeamishness requires a long period of exposure to whatever it is you find taboo. It means learning to approach that subject on its own terms, not the ones prescribed by outsiders. I wish I hadn't been so squeamish on the train the other day, but then I thought you'd understand.