Within our society, there is a common story that reoccurs again and again. I call this the down and out story.
Basically, it goes a little something like the story below. Just so you aren’t reading a pure piece of fiction, I’ll put in annotations to explain the steps of the down and out story.
Here it is:
I had just lost my job and had been living in this crappy apartment, I was nearly out of money, rent was due, and I knew I was ruined.
As you’d expect, a down and out story has to begin with someone down on their luck. Normally at this point, the person is a successful artist or businessman by now, but they remind the readers or the audience that yes, at one point in time, they were struggling. It goes on.
I sat on my bed that was too small for me, and just sat there, imagining what would happen when I couldn’t pay my rent.
So, in that mood, I left my apartment and went for a walk. I just had my hands stuffed in my jacket, wasn’t looking up at nobody. I must not looked like a happy guy!
Anyways, I’ve been walking around the city like this for about half an hour, when I pass a homeless man sleeping with his dog. Now, he was a scruffy looking guy, but the dog looked good. Well-fed, groomed, taken care of.
When you are “down and out” you are more perceptive than you normally would be. This means that you notice things that you would have ignored if you had been happy and content. In this case, our hero here notices a homeless man and a dog. This is worth nothing, because while our hero is having a spout of bad luck, there is someone here worse off than him, who looks not only happy, but peaceful.
I couldn’t believe it. This homeless guy had taken better care of the dog than he had of himself.
So, without even thinking, just based on pure feeling, I reached into my wallet and grabbed my last twenty dollars.
A good down and out story has an “ah-ha” moment, normally based on pure intuition or feeling. The desperate scientists suddenly get an idea for the cure. The artist is struck by a brilliant feeling of inspiration. In our case, our hero is struck with a strong urge to be generous.
And I mean it was my last twenty dollar note. I was planning to live on this twenty dollars for the next five days until my rent ran out.
This is another common thread of these sorts of stories. “It was the last…” whatever. The last dollar note. The last brush he had to paint with. The last one thousand dollars he had to invest. This gives the reader or audience member a strong feeling of the stakes.
As I pulled the note out, the dog woke up, but didn’t move, and just looked at me.
“Hey Doggy,” I said, and leaned forward, and gently tucked the note in the dog’s collar. “Tell your owner that he’s been good,” I said with a smile.
A bit of humor can work well at this point when our hero has made a change of direction and is now seeing the world differently.
And then I left. I don’t know if the dog lost the note, or if the guy even noticed, but like a fool, I left my last twenty dollars with a stranger’s dog.
This reinforces the idea that our hero is not tied to the outcome of what he has done. “I just painted because I was so inspired,” or “I didn’t care if my investment would make money or not, I just believed so much in the company it didn’t even occur to me.”
I got back to my apartment, still smiling, and actually feeling pretty good, and went to bed without dinner. What I did made no sense, but I did it, and I felt great.
The common down and out story will make logic and reason an antagonist. Logical processes don’t really appeal in this context, instead, they actually hold our hero back.
And the next day I was told I had mail. And I never had mail. Nobody wanted anything to do with me since I lost my job.
It was a large brown envelope, written to me in really bad handwriting. And I peeled this thing open, ripping it to shreds, to get inside.
And our hero receives a “gift” for whatever they have done in their desperate situation, and often the gift is received quite rapidly. The playwright becomes an overnight success, the actor gets the main role, or the business explodes in an online selling frenzy.
And in there was a wad of cash. $800 dollars. And a note. The note said: Sorry this took so long man. I know you’ve been needing it. – Daniel.
Basically, a guy who I had loaned money too a year ago had finally paid me back. I had called him at least a dozen times in the past six months, begging him to send the money.
Again, normal logic is seen as a holdback when compared to “fate” and “meaning.” The money arrived because it was “meant” to arrive.
Yet somehow, when I actually gave my last dollars away, somehow, the 800 dollars showed up. And that’s how I discovered the power of giving.
And finally, it is revealed that our hero learned something they did not know before they were down and out.
This story also has deep spiritual themes as well, which is why it is such an archetypical story. Think of the poor woman giving all that she had as an offering in Jesus’s presence, or gurus of the east renouncing all that they have so they can wander the land and find God.
For now, we will end it here, but the down and out story has more to teach us. I know I may have come across as slightly cynical with my interpretation of this archetypical story.
A lot of successful speakers and marketers use a variation of it to help increase their sales, and good for them. Some, I think really did have an experience like this, while others make it up, as if they can’t be “successful” without first having lived out of their car.
But personally, I know that I have had moments when I have been at my lowest, when all has seemed lost. I may have had money and been living okay, but in an aspect of my life, I felt like I had lost everything.
And then light. And then realization. And then growth.
Because we must go low before we can go high, because if we hold onto a poisonous belief, it will hurt else until we let us go. And sometimes, it will nearly kill else before we manage to free ourselves of it.
One of my mentors has said that spiritual growth is painful, and I’d like to add, sometimes it can be close to deadly.
But if you go one step further, and become closer to your ideal, then what does it matter?