The House You Live In

I know I may be opening myself up to criticism, snickering, and accusations that I’m a whimpering dreamer, but the lyrics to The House You Live In are some of the most touching, most moving, most INSTRUCTIONAL words of any song I know.

It’s not far from the truth for me to say listening to those words when I was an impressionable teen and a lost young man helped shape my attitudes about charity. I believed, still believe, it is my obligation to help people who need help. If they need a place to stay, it’s my obligation to offer one, or find them one. This doesn’t necessarily coincide with my wife’s attitudes, and she has her ideas for completely valid reasons, yet I still feel that sense of obligation to people who are less fortunate than I.

My shame, my embarrassment is that I let my fear of condemnation as an innocent, someone who buys into the stories of the homeless and underprivileged, prevent me from living according to my beliefs that I have an obligation.  Though I try to help when I can, a five dollar bill doesn’t begin to do what an 8-hour sleep in a clean bed can do for someone who’s living a hard, hard life.  It’s hard to reconcile living up to a social metric that I find abysmal with a belief that I owe a debt of service to my fellow man.   That disconnect says unpleasant things about me; not just me, of course, but anyone who know what they should do, but who doesn’t do it in order to escape ridicule for doing the right thing.

Here, in the second half of my life, I hope I have the courage and the wherewithal to do the right thing.  A friend of mine will serve meals to the needy over the holidays; another will spend time and energy in a “soup kitchen” in Arlington.  I don’ t have any such plans. There are reasons, but not good enough reasons.

So, here are the words I love, the words I wish I’d live by:

The House You Live In (Gordon Lightfoot)
Go first in the world, go forth with your fears
Remember a price must be paid
Be always too soon, be never too fast
At the time when all bets must be laid
Beware of the darkness, be kind to your children
Remember the woman who waits
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at your gate

When you’re caught by the gale and you’re full under sail
Beware of the dangers below
And the song that you sing should not be too sad
And be sure not to sing it too slow
Be calm in the face of all common disgraces
And know what they’re doin’ it for
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at your door

When you’re out on the road and feelin’ quite lost
Consider the burden of fame
And he who is wise will not criticize
When other men fail at the game
Beware of strange faces and dark dingy places
Be careful while bending the law
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at your door

When you’re down in the dumps and not ready to deal
Decide what it is that you need
Is it money or love, is it learning to live
Or is it the mouth you must feed
Be known as a man who will always be candid
On questions that do not relate
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at the gate
And the house you live in will never fall down
If you pity the stranger who stands at the gate


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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9 Responses to The House You Live In

  1. Juan says:

    In reference to George Harrison: You have got to see Scorsese’s documentary on George Harrison; it’s one of the best I’ve seen:

  2. Trish says:

    Yes, I know this video well. She is wonderful, and brave in what she did, and accomplished…and she is educated. But here there is no real possible progress as described by Amanda Palmer. She is light years ahead in comparison to here, as much as I wished this wasn’t so. But of course, her true message here is universal which I love, but for many is not ascertainable. She has drive, luck, and location. Makes the difference, but certainly not an excuse, just a bigger battle…

  3. I understand, in a very limited way, when people feign anger at street performers; it’s because they are afraid and don’t know how to judge them and don’t understand something so completely foreign. That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it may help explain it. This video is one of my favorite TED Talks; this woman explains what it’s like to be a street performer…it gets me at the gut level. Love it!

  4. Trish says:

    Tame video of the corners of the streets here. I give them spare change if I can fined it fast enough between lights.

    I shall never forget one real slap in my face, and that was when (and they are often seen) my x- husband was approached by a woman at a stop light one a busy corner, dressed in Indian garb, and judging by her etched features was all Indian, and the fact that she had very little spanish mixed with a dialect in her vocabulary, I’d guess her age anywhere between 75 to 100. Yes, she was begging, and extended her hand towards the window of my x-husband. He ignored her. I said, give her something! His response, “she needs to get a job”. A job, I exclaimed! As what? She’s somebody great grandmother, and doesn’t speak the adopted language….what do you expect of this poor woman? He drove on, ignored my question, as he ignored the ancient woman. His tight fist told me volumes that day….or shall I say his tight soul? Strange, my first husband was a man of the people, with considerable less money, he always gave (la propina) and especially to someone like her….but then again, he was professor of Mexican history, and had a big heart…

  5. Trish says:

    I live were poor people work every corner, every intersection. The will sell small trinkets, preform magic acts at stop lights, and the most unfortunate of all are crippled clowns with crutches that dodge between the cars on a red light, or those young men that ingest gasoline, and with a lit torch shot flames….their life is short lived. Some will give them money, as they say here, “una propina (a tip), but its really a donation as I see it. Now as informal as it sounds, and may sound pretty awful, at least I know it (money) got directly to that person. Which leads me to the forthcoming.

    I recall way back when I worked for “The Gap”. I was in the headquarters, in payroll division. Oh, how I remember at this time of year came the campaign for “United Way”. From our department came the “propaganda” to sell the idea of “donation”, which could conveniently be deducted from your paycheck in various contributions, i.e. every paycheck in small amounts, one time only larger donation, etc. I took it upon myself at that time, to investigate what was United Way, and how it worked. The idea was that they would distribute to various denotational groups. Well, when I saw the % of monies that actually made there way to all these causes, I was appalled! Now, I haven’t any idea if United Way has since mended its “business” practices since, I can only hope. I was expected to promote this in my work. I didn’t pay a dime, and I encourage people to not partake. I’m wary of the middleman. Almost got myself fired as a result. I toned down, but I refused to encourage all those store employee to contribute to this huge corporate money-fest. Most were earning minimum wage, and students, for God sakes! This was the perfect matrimony in my view. Two corporate giants stroking each others back. I wanted nothing to do with this.

    In the case of Juan working the kitchen feeding people, this works! He’s cooking, and they are eating. The donation is straight across the table…as it should be.

  6. Trish says:

    Indeed, Juan is correct….better than nothing. Just imagine that 10 people do the same as you, and it could very well be happening, John. It would tally to $50. As they say, every little bit counts in the big picture. Never underestimate the “worth” of a donation.

  7. Thanks, Juan, for video and the comments. Listening to George Harrison’s version of the tune, I thought of several ways I could interpret it. Yes, I suppose a $5 bill is better than nothing, but compared to time and focus, it’s not much. Your efforts around the holidays are inspirational; I’ll learn do do more than share a nickel and talk about it.

  8. Juan says:

    You’re a good writer, John. I always enjoy your pieces.

    Not too long ago I visited a shelter for battered women — part of the rigor I have for this Psychology-literature course I teach.

    The place was maddening! Rooms were situated like cattle stalls, where the walls did not reach the ceiling — just plain stalls.

    You could hear children screaming and crying….voices from separate stalls talking and crying…..and it quickly became apparent to me why women will often return to their homes and their “beating husbands” rather than stay in these styes!

    In the meantime, children live in tents or cars — with fathers and mothers — and I can hardly bear the thought of that.

    What can I do? I tell you my friend, that $5 dollars is good enough! It does something, rather than nothing!

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