Why Can’t We Live in Paradise?

Reflections on the Words of a Homeless Man

At the homeless shelter where I volunteer, I was interviewing a man who was being admitted, and was following the prompts of a questionnaire.

“Do you have any disabilities?” I said.

“No.  No disabilities.”

“Let me read the list,” I said.  The last one was Drug Abuse.

“Yes,” he said.  “Drug abuse.  I need help with that.”

I went on to the next part of the questionnaire.  “How long have you been homeless?  When would you say your homelessness began?”

“It began when the drug addiction began.  It’s been ever since then.”

“Longer than three years?”

“Oh my God yeah.  Good bit longer.  But I was clean for a while.  I was clean for ten months.  Those were the best ten months of my life.  It was paradise.”
“When was that?”


He’d lived in paradise for ten months.  But then he started using again.  And he hadn’t been able to get clean since.

I shook my head.  If it was paradise, why did he leave?

In his marvelous memoir The Tennis Partner, Abraham Verghese tells of his relationship with a younger man who was not only his tennis partner, but was a medical resident working under him.  The man was brilliant, one of the most capable and mature people Verghese worked with.  He was also a crack tennis player who had played briefly as a pro.  He had an absolutely beautiful girlfriend whom Verghese himself—going through a divorce—found attractive.  He seemed to have a brilliant future ahead of him.

It wasn’t until well into the story that Verghese found out that this man had been a serious cocaine addict, to the point of being on the streets.  He had recovered completely and restored his life.  He constantly seemed to be having relationship problems, but that hardly seemed strange to Verghese, who was going through a separation himself.  It eventually emerged that this young man was the unfaithful partner.  It wasn’t that he had an insatiable need for sex.  He had an insatiable need for women’s love and approval, to prove that he could charm and seduce them.  He wanted to do that with every woman he met.  That was his true addiction, which led to all the others.

Stunningly, by the end of the book, he gets on cocaine again, completely abandons his career as a doctor, becomes a dealer and fugitive from justice, and kills himself.  This, from a man who seemed to have everything.  The world was his oyster.

I regularly visit an inmate at a prison in North Carolina; we meditate for 20 minutes, then talk about whatever is on our minds.  Usually we discuss something vaguely Buddhist related—really, everything is Buddhist related—and after I read The Tennis Partner I told him about the book and asked that basic question: why would a man in that position do that?  Why do we flee the beautiful world we’re given and run to addictions that take us away from it?

That, he said, had been the koan of his life.

He’d struggled with addiction all his life, had periods when he’d stayed clean, then started to use again.  In one notable example, he’d fled his home state—where the environment kept dragging him back into drugs—for North Carolina, where he had family.  “I had a good job, making good money.  I was clean.  I was happy.  I met a woman and told her I was this crazy bisexual man, and that was okay with her.  Then we went to a party and there were drugs there.  I was always okay in an environment where there were no drugs.  But when there were drugs around, I always had this feeling, no, you people don’t know how to use cocaine.  You don’t know how to shoot up heroin.  Let me show you how to do that.”

He shook his head and shrugged.  “I took drugs that night.  I don’t remember what happened.  I woke up the next morning and I was wanted for murder.”

Talk about leaving paradise.

When I sit in meditation in the morning, I often reach a state that is blissful.  My body is comfortable, with a minimum of tension; my breathing soft and easy; birds are singing and insects humming.  It’s like the moment the Buddha remembered from his childhood.  But there’s a little voice inside me that says, when is this going to be over?  When can I go back to living?  When can I—basically—get back to wanting and striving and suffering and fucking up?

What the hell is that all about?