I think part of the reason that the events of recent days have caused so much anguish is that they call to mind a few very basic problems that are part of the human condition. How we make room in our lives for each other. Why we hurt each other, and how we recover from pain, and how it changes us. How we, as people, voluntarily create intolerable conditions, and what it means to know that those who do this are still our brothers and sisters, that any of this could have happened to - or been done by - any of us.
While there's clearly an immediate issue to address re: the refugee ban, if we want to keep moving forward as a society, there's another thing we can't forget: arriving is just the beginning. To a certain degree, I think, you never stop being a refugee. And dealing with the consequences of that, the trauma and the pain that gets passed down, isn't something we're very good at yet.
A few days ago I found this poem by one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee. He says all this better than I can.
Self-Help for Fellow Refugees
- Li-Young Lee
If your name
suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment,
or to announce
the entrances and exits of the seasons
and the birthdays of gods and demons,
it's probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States.
And try not to talk too loud.
If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck,
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother
too harshly. Don't ask her
what she thought she was doing,
turning a child's eyes away
and toward that place all human aching starts.
And if, one day, you meet someone
in your adopted country and believe
you see in the other's face an open sky,
some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means
you're standing too far away.
Or if you think you read
in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace, a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you're standing too close.
In any case, try
not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.
And if you're one of those
whose left side of the face doesn't match
the right, it might be a clue
looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
not being beautiful.
Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering
while forgetting. Dying to live
while not wanting to go on.
Very likely, your ancestors decorated their bells
of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars and diagrams
of distant star systems,
but no maps
for scattered descendants.
And I bet you can't say
what language your father spoke
when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, "Let the boy see!"
Maybe it wasn't the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and the noise of guns in the streets.
It doesn't matter.
What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.
Thinking is good.
But living is better.
in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.
No maps for scattered descendants. Maybe those are what we need to write.