As the weeks have passed since my last post, I’ve pondered what to write about on so many occasions. Discussing the political situation here is off limits – that’s part of working in humanitarian aid. While it goes without saying that everybody’s got opinions about the political context unfolding around them, we’re expected to keep those feelings to ourselves in the interests of addressing the beneficiaries we’re serving, directly or indirectly (in my case at this moment in time, it’s very much the latter). In any case, it’s not the best time in history for amateur pundits to philosophize publicly about the powers that be in just any country. Particularly this one.
I could certainly talk about my work, but the truth is that while it feels very important and exciting to me, it’s not very sexy and wouldn’t really thrill my gentle readers. More often than not, it’s a bit of a pickle even to get the people I work with excited about it.
This country and this city are extraordinary, but I still don’t feel any air of authority to opine about it, and the wonderful and terrible little quirks we saw every day in the Philippines aren’t here so much – except politically, and for that I refer you back to my first paragraph.
The distance between C and I is necessary, but it’s suffocating…I know it’s temporary, but keeping this struggle to myself has become one way of coping with it…life sometimes simply is what it is, and when a difficult thing is sure to pass, my survival instincts at present are telling me just to get on with it (though a few more months into this might bring a different perspective).
However, living alone leaves me time I never had before to explore how I use my time, and one of the things I’ve found myself doing quite a lot is suffering the shock of what feels like a world gone absolutely fucking insane.
When I was growing up, History – capitalized because I refer here to the academic variety, i.e., what we’re taught in school – was always problematic. As I entered my teens, I began to feel connected to the world around me that I couldn’t see…while the Internet was a few years from going mainstream, the bubble of the traditional U.S. American experience of the world was for me undergoing that slow-motion, painful popping, which is something like a nail in a car’s tire, so that it isn’t a sudden and shocking WHAP! but instead a very slow mental exhalation of the things we took for granted.
The other day I was having a beer with a German colleague who was venting about an ignorant Facebook post from an old acquaintance and schoolmate from her home village – some anti-migration rant along the lines of, “I just want my children to grow up in the peaceful society I had the privilege of growing up in.” My colleague, who is 5 years younger than me, seethed: “What peaceful society? It was the Cold War! There was a wall separating our country and leaving us in constant anxiety every day!” I thought: yes, it was the Cold War. But like her friend, my childhood felt so protected from the reality of that (Noam Chomsky recently commented that there were literally thousands of near-misses during that time…we could so easily be living in a dystopia far worse than the one I’m currently lamenting).
I have never been patient with people who patch the holes in their bubbles; in my freshman year of high school, I requested a transfer from my history class to another because my teacher refused to admit that Christopher Columbus was not a hero, but a catalyst in genocide. As a student, we were taught so many of these lies: Thanksgiving, WWII, Vietnam…no textbook told us about the blood dripping from the hands of U.S. American international policy-makers; the first time I heard Gil Scott Heron say, “The revolution will not be televised,” I cried, because I understood. But there was so much I didn’t understand, and even now – all grown up and even getting a bit on in years – there is so much I don’t understand.
Still, while our History classrooms could never teach us honestly about the sins of our forebears, we were very clearly taught about those of others, and key among these was the Holocaust. My History lessons were filled with our glorious WWII stories (leaving out, of course, the role we played in turning away Jewish refugees in their time of need, and Hiroshima and the internment camps were among those incidental details that didn’t come until university). I speak for myself only, but perhaps my gentle readers can relate to my feelings back then of horror toward the people whose cruelty and indifference were aimed squarely at those in the very most vulnerable state known to humanity. People who’d lost their homes, who’d seen their loved ones murdered, or perhaps worse, whose loved ones simple ceased to exist from one day to the next. People who were branded as pariahs, though they were simply pawns in a much larger game being played by champions of war whose objectives make no sense to those of us trying to lead normal lives. Though perhaps the voice in my head never clearly articulated it in this way, I knew that had these things come to pass in my generation, we’d have done things differently. We wouldn’t have turned them away.
Oh, the shame and disappointment that comes with this terrible realization: history repeats itself, though it seems never the wonderful, heroic achievements of the species are replicated…only our most vile. Why do we call this behaviour inhuman? As a humanist and humanitarian, I simply cannot accept the notion that these things are human nature, but I am ashamed, and it is hard to hope.
There are two refugee families who sit next to the metro station I pass on my way to work every day. I think they are Kurdish Syrians, but of course I haven’t the language to ask. Both have two young children; both pairs of parents are young as well. They sit all morning in front of the station where their children can run and play a little, always within a few feet of their parents. I have never seen them smile. I cannot imagine all they must have lost. My only consolation as I pass them each morning is that they have each other.
At the last count I saw, there are roughly 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. This is the tip of the iceberg in the truest sense of the expression – with climate change and ongoing conflict, it is estimated that worldwide, numbers of refugees and asylum seekers are expected to rise to 40 and 50 million. This is only practice.
We can do better, but we are scared. We are electing fascists all over the planet because we have never collectively tried responding to humanitarian crises with love. Time and time again, the world shows us, in no uncertain terms, that responding to suffering by creating more suffering is neither logical nor effective, but some truly moronic – not to mention evil – part of us refuses to see what is plainly in front of our eyes.
There are many reasons I have chosen not to have children, but at this moment in time, I am relieved that I will never have to explain why we didn’t do better, when we absolutely could have, to relieve the greatest suffering our species knows by simply reaching out to people who must fight every minute of every day to remember what joy feels like.
As I go about my difficult-to-explain job, doing work that very indirectly might improve the lives of a few, I – like so many of us now – have to carry within my chest that shame, that rage. Hope may seem foolish, but if I have to choose between the foolishness of making the same horrible mistakes all over again, and the foolishness of hoping we might find a way to do things differently, I’ll take the foolishness of hope any day.