In the 2000 film American Psycho, there is a scene in which Patrick Bateman, a wealthy Wall Street employee, condescends to a homeless person in an alley. “Do you have any idea what a fucking loser you are?” Bateman rhetorically asks the homeless person. He then kills the homeless person and a nearby dog in disgust.
While this scene reads as unthinkably cruel, its ideology is also woven into the very foundation of our country. In Bateman’s judgement of the homeless person as a “loser,” I hear the ideologies of individualism, capitalism, and materialism. I hear the notion of pulling oneself up “by one’s bootstraps;” this might be what Bateman perceives himself to have done, so why can’t the homeless person?
In truth, Bateman was handed his Wall Street job by high-powered connections after growing up in a wealthy family and attending a private college. And while this example may ring as extreme to most readers, its essence strikes a chord with the bare fact about us all: we do not gain our power, skill, or station through intrinsic effort. Suppose you claim your ability for hard work as one of your guarantors of material success. Well, who taught you how to work hard? Teachers? Parents? An after-school mentor? Even if you can find no one who taught you this skill, is it not a gift from God that you were born with it? Add to such a skill the relationships that have buoyed you to success, the environment that has fed you, the examples of people before you who had achieved what you sought to achieve. From these examples, did you not derive the courage to proceed?
Broadly speaking, Bateman’s hatred of the homeless person is symptomatic of our culture’s hatred for the feminine, which I’m using here as a symbol for interdependence, for nurturing, for quietude, for the sacred. To the degree Bateman hates the homeless person, it is because he cannot recognize the ways in which he, himself, is as dependent as that person: Bateman has inherited wealth, connection, and skills that have given him his remunerative job and all its associated power. Nothing is born from the void.
And so to the degree that we deny these fundamental realities of the self, we will hate and project onto those who are most in need. Through this dynamic, we will fail to be the very kind of person that would make us happy: a giver, one who helps rather than hurts. In false relationship with our very self, we will fail to know ourselves and will drift through our lives as ghosts, chasing immaterial idols. Power? Security? Status? Money? What more do you need to feel like you?
In the homeless person, I see and have always seen myself. I am no better, no different. He is my brother, my kin. And so the suffering of the other is the suffering of my own self.