Mark Ryavec shares his intimate reflection on his brother and what a life lived often at the mercy of others looks like:

I lost my brother Steve last week. He died of cardiac arrest at 63.

Steve was the black sheep of our family of six children. He did not go to college and struggled to make a living building decks and remodeling bathrooms and kitchens. If my parents had not let him live in a converted garage behind their house in Santa Monica, he would very likely have ended up like many of the folks we see living on the street in Venice – and he certainly would have died much sooner than he did.

From an early age Steve abused drugs, alcohol and food. Although he was from a family of walkers and runners, exercise was not in Steve’s vocabulary. Alcohol and food exacerbated his late on-set diabetes, required three-times-a-week dialysis for the last 11 years and led to the loss of his eyesight in his early fifties.

He had been living in an assisted living facility in Culver City when he paused to sit down in the lobby, passed out and never woke up.

His life was not without laughter, love, pleasure or accomplishment, though these were rarer after the dialysis started and his sight was gone.

For many years I have looked at the homeless population in Venice as though I was looking at countless Steves struggling with substance abuse, limited skills, and self-defeating behaviors. The human tendency to get stuck, to become habituated, both to addiction and to a status quo, is the dominant thread I saw in Steve and also in those living on the Boardwalk and Third Street and behind Ralphs.

To those who question my sympathy for the homeless, this column is an acknowledgement that my experience with Steve hardened me. Living close to an addict for most of my life made me acutely aware of how easily our “help” is counter-productive and simply enables self-defeating behavior to continue. It also made me see how obstinate a human being can be in pursuing their own destruction. My parents’ enabling of Steve kept him from the street but also kept him from successfully confronting his addictions and a fuller life. A stint in AA was promising but did not last. We all stood by feeling helpless as he descended into renal failure, blindness and loss of mobility.

For me, the corollaries abound in Venice. Public feeding programs at Venice churches and along the Boardwalk invite more homeless here while offering just enough to keep them ensconced on the street. …

Mark is writing about his brother. He’s writing about the experiences Venice faces in balancing justice for its permanent residents and mercy for the less fortunate. He’s also touching upon the issue of justification—in other words, on th question of why we deserve anything in the first place. 

What separated his parents from his troubled brother? In short, a gulf of circumstances and decisions. But what they shared what an innate dignity that neither party earned. An innate dignity intrinsic to them as creatures.

Especially in a consumer and market economy, there is he tendency to justify prosperity. We justify it through hard work, as if hard workers aren’t often unfortunate. We justify it by circumstance as if context explains a blessing. We justify.

I don’t think that anyone understands how unearned their station in life is that they are in a truly able to be grateful for it.