After I mused over the connection between homelessness and consciousness here, it cropped up again in one of my father’s recent experiences. This time, it’s tied dangerously close to another social problem, gambling. Now as with all Dad anecdotes, this is probably best to consume with a grain of salt.
A woman had approached him for money outside our local shopping centre, a surprisingly common sight even in the fairly comfortable middle-class eastern suburbs. He had asked her what she needed the money for, wary that she might use it to support alcohol, drug or gambling habits. ‘I need a lift somewhere,’ she explained, looking suspicious of being questioned – probably unusual since most don’t bother to stop and engage with street side beggars. As Dad has a policy of not giving money directly because of the above reasons, he offered to give her a lift to wherever she needed to go. As any sane lady alone would do, she declined the offer, hedging that her friend was coming to pick her up. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said instead, ‘I need the money for food’.
Dad went inside the shopping centre and came out with some lunch – she asked specifically for a sandwich, not plain bread – hoping that would be enough to keep her from having to beg for the next few hours. But as she swallowed down the food, the woman resumed her activities, turning to other passersby in hope of their generosity. Not for food or transport though, presumably.
However, rather than passing this incident off as ingratitude or ingenuity of need to further warn us off against compassion for the homeless, Dad used the opportunity to drill into me the vice of gambling (though it could as easily be for the need of basic necessities, or drug and alcohol abuse). Begging practices to preserve an income from gambling might seem far-fetched, but not any less so than the desperation warranted to fund expensive addictions.
‘Don’t gamble,’ Dad intoned in his Confucius voice, ‘and don’t make friends who gamble.’ I note the impossibility of his second caution, but keep listening. ‘It makes you lie to borrow money from friends. Oldest friends. That new Packer casino in Sydney? It gonna ruin lives, I tell you. And when you go bankrupt, and lose hope, you know how many people kill themselves? It wrecks families. Makes children into orphans. Just don’t, Christine.’
In a spur of father-to-daughter wisdom-transferral I promise then and there never to gamble (though I can’t quite bring myself to cut off my friendships). It’s not just a momentary revelation either, I genuinely do believe gambling belongs in the Axis of Evil and if the industry absolutely must exist, it should at least be government-owned, but more about that another time.
I am more bothered however by the cognitive dissonance that starts clanging inside my head. Many of my close friends pay an obligatory trip to the casino on most weekends, and just last week I had to console a work friend about losing eighty dollars on pokies that her pension-receiving grandma had given her (and celebrate when she won it back). Sure, gambling is bad in the extremes, but surely even recreationally, it can’t be as one-dimensional as Dad puts it.
Let’s look at life outside the casino. Everything we do asks us to strike a balance between risk and reward. We take a gamble on time when we choose to sleep in an extra five minutes, a gamble on life every time we jaywalk, or go rollerblading without knee guards on (badass). Investment banking is gambling made legal and financially crucial to our economy. Yes, institutionalised gambling is risk bubble-wrapped in risk, a house of cards assembled on the pier of a notoriously windy bay. But gambling itself isn’t evil, just as risk isn’t either. Its mathematical probabilities of reward are abysmally dubious, but wouldn’t you say gambling is just an extension of normal human activity? At most, it takes the instinctive judgments of fight-or-flight, risk versus reward, and amplifies them grossly in favour of fight and risk. But our psychology is who we are, and choosing risk can pay off in opportunities for advancement that would’ve otherwise flown by in waste.
Most obviously, what does gambling teach you? It teaches you that whatever is risked can and (often) will be lost. It teaches you to deal with that loss, whether by spending more money on drinks, or by laughing it off with mates. Money shouldn’t be treated as the elixir of life. Nothing is as important as life. When you gamble, you might lose your money, but at least it’s a reminder that you can win it back. Enjoy this, because it is one of the only things that can be won back from where the lost things are.
Like life itself, everything in it is fleeting. Nothing belongs to us eternally. So maybe it’s best we learn to let go of things like money. It’s not a part of you; it should be allowed to come and go. Take a chance. (But be smart about it, please.) After all, look what happened when you made him promise ‘never let go, Jack. NEVER LET GO!!’
This wasn’t meant to be a post semi-endorsing gambling. If anything, I still stand by my solemn word to Dad, and would only ever set foot in a casino to laugh at my fortune-less friends. But to the rest of you more budget well-endowed, risk-taking daredevils, whisper a prayer to the gods of Vegas and embrace the unpredictable. Bon chance!