Trent’s Burning Bush Article

November 27th, 2007


I was walking down the street the other day here in Los Angeles, and I saw a billboard that stopped me in my tracks. On the bottom was the familiar image of a half-naked couple in an embrace. Above them in giant letters was printed a commandment, “Life is short. Have an affair.” Yes, this was on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the world capital of the entertainment industry. Even though part of me felt insulted, I had to laugh. It was as if they finally admitted it. No more beating around the bush: “we advocate instant gratification as the best way to happiness. Morality is just not fun.”

Most readers of this paper would probably disagree with that path to happiness. But what is the best way to be happy? It is something that we all want. So why is it so hard to find? Part of the reason is that so many people come up with different ways to be happy. College freshman write philosophy term papers on the subject. Entire wars between nations have been fought over the right way to be happy. And many lives have been lived seeking answers to the same question. My life, for one, has definitely been lived by trying out different answers to that question, and seeing how they work. So when I sat down to write this article, I asked myself, “why did I join the Center for the Working Poor?” The answer was simple: to be happy. And, to be honest, right now working at the Center is working pretty well.

I have already learned a few lessons about happiness in my life. For one, I’m done with that short term, instant-oatmeal happiness. It doesn’t last. I’m going for the good stuff. The true, pure-in-my-heart, nobody-can-take-away-from-me, good-until-the-day-I-die-and-then-some, real happiness. It has brought me this far, and I’ve got a ways to go yet. But first a little on my life here at the Center.

Some of our lifestyle here at the Center could go up on our own billboard. The Center billboard would say: “Work at home!” “Make your own schedule!” “Be friends with your boss!” Or even, “have work that gives your life a sense of purpose and a feeling at the end of the day that you have helped your fellow man!” Other parts of my life would definitely not fit on a Hollywood billboard. Picture walking down Sunset Blvd. and seeing “live on $200 a month!” Or how about “Get your food straight from the garbage!” Not to mention, of course, “You too could have a fulfilling career in the field of social change! Requirements: zero ambitions for social status; willing to go without retirement, health insurance, or long-term stability.” It would be a pretty hard sell.

So why would I choose a career that seems at odds with the point of having a career in the first place? Why choose a lifestyle that seems like the most definite way to drive away girlfriends, frighten loving parents, and provide little to no sense of security? And what’s more, why do all that when it is not even the easy way, when you actually have to work for your instability? Well, to be perfectly honest a lot of it has had to do with having a good girlfriend. And I am thankful that it has not driven her away. But it is also because the easiest way is seldom the most rewarding one.

Although it might not get any billboards, if you study history, the lifestyle we are living at the Center has a pretty good record. Jesus and the early Christians, the Buddha and his followers, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, Gandhi and his satyagrahis, King, SNCC and all their “field organizers,” – are all people I look to as precursors to what we’re doing now. They are people who I call spiritual nonviolent warriors, and there are plenty more where those came from. What is more interesting, is that if you actually study their lives, not just the representations we see in the media, you get a much clearer picture of why they did the things they did. Far from being self-sacrificing martyrs or suffering saints, as they are often portrayed, the main reason they do what they do is because they genuinely want to be happy. It just so happens that the ways they have found happiness are radically different than the mainstream.

All of them figured out that they were not going to find happiness through instant gratification. It had to be something deeper. All of them were deeply religious. And all of them, to some degree or another, realized that there was a connection between looking for change in the world, and looking for change within oneself. All who have a deep commitment to social change have gone through some sort of inward search. In my life I knew I would have to do the same.

After years of therapy, self-help books, and meditation, I am happy to report that I can blame everything on my father. Actually, in large part, it really is. My dad was special. Although I don’t think he will do down in history as a great leader, he has been a great leader in his own life. He took up his own search for happiness. He found it in a way he never had before. And he passed on what he found to me, which has been a joyful gift.

My dad’s dad didn’t know how to love. It took my dad three years of therapy, (three times a week, eight in the morning, including Saturdays), to undo the hurts caused by a lack of love. What’s more, my dad took all the hurt he felt from not being loved by his dad and turned it into love for me. My dad’s friends tell him that they see him as a “model dad,” and look to him for inspiration about how they want to raise their kids.

If there are any enriching activities that my dad didn’t share with me, he must not have known about them. Quitting his job to spend more time with his kids, my dad gave me Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. He gave me the tricks that gave me some of the fastest Pine Wood Derby cars in our pack. He gave me his love of nature and of photography. He coached my junior teams of T-ball and soccer, and came to just about every one of my sporting events. A science teacher, he helped me with all of my math and science homework while he cooked dinner (that is, until I passed him). He gave me a sensitivity to the deeper beauty of life, sharing with me the music of Cat Stevens, and the poetry of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. And we made some of the most creative Halloween costumes I have ever seen, including a dining table set for two with candles and my head as the main course.

He shared with me everything he loved. Most of all, even though he never said it with words, he taught me that there’s more to life than what we’re told. He is not a religious man in any regular sense of the word, but the love he shared with me growing up I’m sure is at the heart of all religions. For that I’m forever grateful. Because after much searching I have learned that the reason I do what I do is because of the love he gave me. I have seen the love that lies in him and know how powerful and pure it can be. And nobody can tell me that I don’t have that same kind of love in my heart, or that they don’t have it in theirs.

We all have to take up our own struggles, and like my father, I have struggled with not knowing how to love. I have experienced the pain of loneliness and depression in my own life and it is the hardest thing I have ever come through. I didn’t get how I could take that love that I got from my dad and share it with others around me. In short, I was shy- and painfully so. When I would go to a new school I would feel awkward and anxious around the other kids (much more so than is common). As a result they wouldn’t reach out to me and I wouldn’t reach out to them. Whenever I would move on to a different social situation, a different school, I would feel the awkwardness and anxiety, and the potential-friends who I would meet would feel put off by my seemly cold and aloof demeanor.

Before too long the cycle would just repeat itself. And before too long I started wondering, what is going on? Why are all the other kids so happy and making friends with ease, and I feel like I’ve been left out of the game all together? Why wasn’t I part? The answer was pretty easy for my young mind to find: there must be something wrong with me. There must be something wrong with me, something different about me that nobody understood. And that “something” was the reason for my pain, my anxiety and awkwardness. Other people could sense this “something” and would decide not to be my friend.

I kept my misery hidden. Perfect grades, community service and sports looked nice on the outside, but I was miserable on the inside. The hardest thing about it all was feeling like nobody could understand. I felt was totally alone with that pain. I remember one time when that became clear to me during my senior year in high school. My mom had sensed that I was unhappy, and sent me to see a therapist for depression. I definitely wanted to feel better, so I went. Most times when I would go I would ride there on the circus unicycle that my dad had gotten me. The smiles on the kids’ faces would always brighten my day. And I will always remember the day when my therapist told me, “you know Trent, your mom sent you to see me for depression, and I understand you’ve had a little trouble making friends, but every week I see you riding here on that unicycle and you seem to be pretty happy.” It is hard to convey how hard it was to realize that even this expert, this paid professional couldn’t see what was really going on inside, that even while riding a unicycle down the street I could feel totally alone.

I remember one of those down days picking up my copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, a man whose story continues to inspire me. He too wanted something more in life. He was unsatisfied with the prospect of taking over his parents’ business, so he built himself a cabin in the woods to find a better way to live. In his words, he went to live in the woods, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came time to die, discover that I had not lived.” He too was unhappy living life on the surface and set out to find something more. Sounded good to me. And when I turned his book over on the back was printed a quote that always stays with me: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Somehow reading that I knew that I was not alone. I knew what that quiet desperation was. I knew it was that something that had been making me so unhappy, and which I could never put a finger on. And it was the something that nobody else seemed to be talking about it. I had seen that quiet desperation in the faces of people riding the metro. But nobody else seemed to notice- or care. It was not just me after all. Someone as wise as Thoreau had felt what I felt, and had the courage to try another way of living. From there he could see that he was not the only one who felt that lack, and that “the mass of men” feel it to.

And what are the “mass of men” (and women) looking for but a way to find true happiness in their lives? What Thoreau was feeling in 1845, and what I was feeling in high school was a hunger for a greater happiness. It is the same hunger that has driven the great saints and sages to find something more in their lives, to find a truer form happiness. How to be happy is a question that all humans are faced with since the day we are born. And it is in answer to that question that we have all different religions and philosophies in the world today.

Unfortunately, we are not doing so well. We must be looking for happiness in all the wrong places because a lot of people feel sad and lonely like I did growing up. That is not to say that everyone has experienced the same difficulty making friends, but that the quiet desperation that Thoreau talked about is definitely still with us today. And you do not have to take my word for it, just ask the World Health Organization of the United Nations. Since you can’t really come up with public policy programs based on Thoreau quotes, they came up with a way to quantify depression as a public health issue. Their statistics help give some perspective on the scope of the problem. Since mortality is a very limited way to measure disease, they came up with a new standard to measure the total amount of human suffering caused by disease. They call it “Disability Adjusted Life Years,” or DALYs. It definitely makes sense to me that to cure a disease it helps to look at the overall picture, not just the acute cases.

So, thinking in terms of DALYs, how does depression measure up? Well in 2000 depression was the fourth largest cause of human suffering, coming in behind heart diseases, lung infections, and AIDS. By the year 2020 the WHO calculates that depression will be the second largest cause of human suffering worldwide (in case you are curious about where we are heading, in 1990 the top three causes of worldwide suffering were pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, and problems surrounding childbirth. In 2020 the top three will be heart disease, depression, and traffic accidents.)

Seeing that now, my vague and nebulous misery being quantified and compared in scope to other miseries, I can see that I was far from alone! I thought nobody could feel my pain, when in fact, millions more people were feeling my pain every day! If I would have only known that it could have saved me so many adjusted life years! Where was the World Health Organization when I needed it?

I hope all the policy people and governments specialists read these reports. What a beautiful thing it would be to see quiet desperation taken up as a serious problem. Public programs would be set up and given billions of dollars to make sure that everyone is truly happy and not suffering needlessly from a sense of hopelessness that we already know how to cure. Instead of “every school should have a computer,” we would have “every school should have lots of counselors. No child should feel alone. No child should have nobody to talk to.” And next to all the billboards telling us “Buying will make you happy,” will be those public service billboards, just like the ones telling kids to stay off drugs. They would say, “We understand if you feel miserable and alone. Lots of us do. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is something more to life. You can be truly happy.”

Well, at the bottom of that billboard they’re going to have to put our phone number. And we’re going to have to get busy building more Center houses. Because we have got a lot of competition. The “life is short. Have an affair,” people have been making big bucks off our quiet desperation for a long time. And right now, they are winning, and showing no signs of letting up. And they have got a lot to spend.

So during this season when we’re being told to celebrate with consumption, please send over a few bucks to our team, the true happiness team. And maybe some day when I’m walking down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, I’ll be able look up and see our billboard up there.

This entry was posted in About the Center, Faith and Poverty, Featured Articles in Sidebar, Health Care, Spirituality & Centering Prayer. Bookmark the permalink.

We will All Become Pilgrims: 2022 Newsletter Summary

December 19th, 2022

By Paul Engler Whenever I write my newsletter, I am afraid a subtle or not-so-subtle repetition will be noticed—I fear I write the same thing over and over again! Generally the theme has something to do with change, uncertainty, and … Continue reading

Liminality is a Recipe for Navigating Winter: Becoming a Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago

December 19th, 2022

Whether you’re in a midlife, quarter life, or general life crisis, the proverbial crap hits the wall. You break up with your girlfriend, your community starts falling apart, your movement dies, your organization goes bankrupt, you lose the political campaign. … Continue reading

2022 House Journal

December 19th, 2022

I’m happy to report that our community has stabilized at the Center for the Working Poor house. We haven’t had one person leave in the past year! A welcome contrast to 2021, when we had so many people come and … Continue reading

2021 CWP Newsletter Summary

December 15th, 2021

There is a big debate among economists about a curious phenomenon unfolding right now called “The Great Resignation”. We have an immense labor shortage because people are not returning to work as the experts expected (common after a recession). There … Continue reading

2021 Center Update: Ring the Bell of Hope… Again, and Again

December 15th, 2021

This fall, in one of my first trips to visit my coworkers from the Ayni Institute in Boston, I stopped by New York City to visit one of my closest friends, Eric Stoner. And I was sitting on his couch, … Continue reading

2021 House Journal

December 15th, 2021

The Center for the Working Poor was founded in 2006, but we didn’t move into our large Victorian house until 2007. Therefore, we have been in the house for 14 years now; and throughout this time, only Paul Engler has … Continue reading

The Story of Community Counseling

December 15th, 2021

Over the last year, we have started beta groups for a new model of mutual aid counseling, called Community Counseling that has engaged dozens in weekly small group counseling practice and training. In November, I went to Boston to lead … Continue reading

2020 Center Update: Surrender and Become Attentive

December 17th, 2020

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die …” — Ecclesiastes 3:1 “Surrender to what is dying, and become attentive to what is emerging.”  — … Continue reading