I don’t really believe in sermons and Thoughtful Lessons make me think of Jack Handey in the worst kind of way but I do believe in acknowledging occasions and here we are near the end of another year and, given that, I am here and you are here and we here are so we should probably make the most of this time together.
This time of year makes most of us more introspective and I am no exception to that. I’ve always been a mix of equal parts enthusiasm for this fascinating world and crushing disappointment at how incapable we seem to be at learning from our collective mistakes; I am neither really an optimist nor a pessimist, though I’ve logged considerable time in either camp, and anyone who knows me well could most certainly vouch that “pragmatic” is one of the last adjectives that they’d use to describe me.
Truth be told, I am just trying to stay afloat in this life, as is everyone else, knowing how fortunate I am but also how much needless suffering there is while trying to keep my head above the waves of sadness that arise from living in the tension of knowing this. Sometimes I go under water from it all. You know how after you’re hit by a big wave and you’re surrounded by what feels like a wall of water, for a moment or two, you don’t know where you are in all of it, you don’t know if you’re sinking or rising or being pulled into deeper waters? All you can do is aim toward the light and hope that are heading in the right direction and that you will surface really soon. You break through, sputtering out water and gasping for air, but your heart is racing and you’re disoriented. You see the sky and maybe some seagulls and you’re scared but grateful. You’ll surface or you’ll drown. This would describe how I experience not sinking in a world with so much suffering.
Not too long ago, I did this little online exercise to see what could have happened to me if I were a Syrian refugee and had to choose between two increasingly demanding, frightening decisions until I reached my fate. If you haven’t done this yourself, I encourage you to try it. Through no fault of my own, the choices I made the first time based on the limited options available found me sold to militia after militia as a female. I tried again. The next time, I ended up in a Turkish refugee camp, separated from my family. My heart sank. I tried again. I was put in a refugee camp again, this time, thankfully, with my family. I had to try again and I drowned in the Mediterranean. On my sixth or seventh try, I finally made it to Manchester, UK, where I, presumably with my family, was penniless but had found asylum. This was just an exercise and the point was to show the unforeseeable but grave consequences of the limited choices desperate refugees are forced to make every day through no fault of their own. Perhaps your choices could lead you to sanctuary but more likely, they would lead to as bad or worse circumstances. The arbitrary and unpredictable nature of the fallout from your desperate choices is jarring: this is not about cunning, resilience or survival of the fittest. Let’s be clear here, there was no way to game the system. This is about stumbling on the invisible route that would thread the needle to lead you to safety with a million possible landmines ready to detonate along the way.
I could not stop trying until I made it to Manchester and even then, while relieved, what I mostly felt was anguish. Maybe I should not have done this a week after the horrific bloodbath in Paris but I couldn’t stop until I found safety. Then I shut my laptop and had a panic attack.
I could have been born in Syria. I could have been lucky enough to have been living in Paris but unlucky enough to have gone to a performance at Le Bataclan on a beautiful Friday night. I could have been born a black male who came across the wrong cop, or self-styled vigilante, at the wrong time. I could have had the stupendously bad fortune of being a turkey or a cow or a chicken or a piglet born into subjugation. Instead, through no achievement of my own, I wasn’t. Who knows what the future will bring but I can safely say that for now, I won a lottery of odds, all things given. I don’t live in Hawai’i or within access to the Redwoods but I have a warm house, relative safety, wonderful friends, a healthy family, a son and husband I adore, and, at this moment specifically, the world’s cutest kitten giving herself a bath on my desk within reach. I have opportunities and I have a future. My mother died after ten years of developing Alzheimer’s at a young age, I live the freelance writer’s life of job-to-job scrambling, the plumbing in our 120-year-old house behaves roughly like how you’d expect it to behave in a 120-year-old house but I still won the lottery. I’m not going to beat myself up over it – again, it wasn’t a choice – but I am going to recognize it for what it is: dumb luck. Threading the damn needle.
There was an expression coined many years ago and applied by Ann Richards to George H. W. Bush: “He was born on third base and he thought he hit a triple.” This is what sums up the attitude that is so offensive and appalling to me -- the profound arrogance of the relative few who don’t recognize the role that simple luck has played in the opportunities and status they enjoy. We need to see our advantages for what they are.
Instead of the immobilizing survivor’s guilt that flooded me when I finally “made it” to Manchester, my goal is to focus on making the most of the advantages I was being born to as an able-bodied, heterosexual human of white skin in the United States by raising awareness about those who are not so advantaged. I am thankful for what I’ve been born to but I am not delusional about it. Make no mistake, I’m mostly just lucky. If you’re reading this, you’re probably lucky, too.
Let’s make the most of it.