As the end of my second trimester approaches, I’m instinctively beginning to slow down. Though the demands of parenting and work haven’t decreased yet, I’m being more selective about how I expend energy in my spare time. I’ve given myself permission to rest whenever possible, to let go of unnecessary busyness. While reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet a few years ago, I realised that I’m what she describes as an ambivert, someone who falls exactly in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. As a result I sometimes feel like I have two different personalities, depending on whether or not I’m experiencing a period of extroversion. At the moment my introspective side is taking over, and my focus has naturally shifted inwards, requiring more space and time for reading and reflection.
Since childhood I’ve been an avid reader. My greatest admiration is reserved for my favourite authors both classic and contemporary. Over the years books have offered me escapism, comfort, personal transformation, and a sense of connection to unknown people and places. While I love words, and the artful way esteemed writers compose them, I am most fascinated by the stories they tell. When I was younger fiction was my mainstay, but nowadays I’m drawn to real life stories in my pursuit to understand humanity.
I’ve been haunted by an excerpt I recently read taken from Valeria Luiselli’s book Tell Me How It Ends. In her essay On the Choices People Make In Coming to America, she writes eloquently about her experiences as a translator working with unaccompanied child migrants from Mexico and Central America. As her family travels across the states on vacation during the summer of 2014, they listen to reports on the radio about undocumented children detained at the border. The children have lost their mothers and fathers, their identity, their homes. With great sadness Luiselli asks, “How do you explain any of this to your own children?” The answer, quite simply, is that I don’t. I cannot make sense of what is happening in my native country, and I certainly don’t have the ability to help my children understand the cruelty and bigotry which dominate my newsfeed on any given day.
The thought of tens of thousands of refugee children- hungry, scared, alone, unprotected- making an arduous journey across the Mexican border, only to swiftly be deported back to where they originated from, literally brought me to tears. I consider myself to be a global citizen and would like to imagine a world without borders. I’m of the perspective that we are all connected, but too many of my fellow American citizens do not feel the same way.
Over the weekend I spoke with my oldest son who happens to be taking a gap year in Ohio with his grandma. Despite feelings of homesickness, he’s happy he came to America because it has taught him to appreciate Ireland. He remarked on the extremism he has witnessed, which is largely absent in Irish culture. Race, religion and politics in particular are sources of division in America, even within our extended family. I’m struck by how my “Christian” relatives are often the first to judge poor people and blame victims of adversity for their hardship. The lack of compassion is astonishing.
Last Friday we celebrated Ireland’s national holiday as we do every year on March 17th. It was also my 20 year anniversary, marking the day I first took a ferry to this beautiful island from England . Back then I had no idea that I would live here for so long! Watching our Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s pointed speech about the value of immigration, with the US president standing beside him, was the most satisfying moment on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s no wonder that the video has gone viral considering the state of current affairs. I am grateful that my experience of immigrating to Ireland has been positive. It saddens me to see that my native country has become unwelcoming to foreigners, and I wish America would remember and honour its founding ideals.
Why is it that some societies are more humane than others? Why are some people locked in selfish, narrow perspectives, while others are passionate about creating social change and equality for all? I’m reminded of several quotes from one of my favourite books, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. This passage is taken from the chapter entitled Wound:
If boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel compassion for all beings must be boundless.
Solnit goes on to say,
If numbness contracts the boundaries of the self, empathy expands it.
The test, it seems, is to remain wholehearted, despite the pain that entails. It is tempting to turn the radio off, to look away, to avoid unhappy stories that confront our prejudices or fears, but we must resist such temptations. Nothing is to be gained by shutting down and becoming small.
Even if our questions have no answers, I think it’s still important to ask them. By sharing our stories it is possible to reconnect. Listening and bearing witness to the lives of others changes us. Walls collapse… and slowly we piece ourselves back together.