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“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.” ― Alphonse Karr, A Tour Round My Garden
“In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill, and you are reborn but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation . . . who knows? When you can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and secret fate of all life. You’re trapped by that nightmare you keep waking up into.” ― Rust Cohle, True Detective, Season One
“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” ― Bertrand Russell
Last week, I was driving to the VA and listening to NPR and came across an interview with a Syrian refugee whose father and brother were captured, tortured, and killed in Assad’s jails back in 2014. A few years later, he was hit with a mortar round while strolling through a market, resulting in a mangled leg that required three surgeries — none of which included any form of anesthesia.
He then spent nine months recovering in a hospital covered with rats. He talked about sharing cobs of corn and bowls of rice with rats. The NPR reporter asked him, “How do you keep going?” The man responded, “I wake up and put on my shoes. I look at the sun and listen to the birds. I enjoy that I’m alive and try and make the best of my time on earth. I even made friends with the rats. Life can be harsh but also beautiful. Humans are resilient.”
The last part, the bit about human resiliency, really hit home, especially after watching Adam Curtis’s latest doc, Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Indeed, human beings are incredibly adaptable and tough. What better example than the past twelve months? It’s been difficult, no doubt (for some more than others, reflecting the stratified society in which we live), but the overwhelming majority of us have endured and survived. We’re here. We’re alive. Let’s keep this in mind. Yes, in some ways, human beings are delicate creatures, but that too has been overblown. We’re not static porcelain dolls. We’re mammals who quickly adapt.
That NPR interview made me think about the number of pouty, self-absorbed, and cynical people in this country who act like their lives are so terrible and walk around with permanent frowns on their faces because every little thing didn’t work out the way they wanted or expected. In my opinion, we’ve got a severe problem with perspective in the United States, and this phenomenon crosses all socio-economic boundaries (class, age, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, geography, etc.).
Is this the inevitable consequence of living in a dying empire? Does late-stage capitalism, as some call it, create the conditions for such spiritless and selfish behavior? Our culture engenders a sense of entitlement and frivolousness, but it also produces self-loathing conditions and blame in a typical contradictory fashion. Capitalism simultaneously tells people they’re special and insignificant — a true mindfuck, one that millions of people cope with by abusing drugs and alcohol. It’s the only way out, so they believe.
To be honest, I think this country would benefit greatly if every American adult were forced to live in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan for a year as soon as they turned eighteen years old, building hospitals and schools, tending to refugees, and learning about local history and culture. Not only would Americans pick up some crucial life lessons (humility, gratitude, — they’d also get a firsthand account of what U.S. foreign policy is all about, the true consequences of war (where most of our tax dollars are going). A win-win, in my view.
For me, this isn’t about punishment. It’s about our collective responsibility as Americans to snap out of our malaise and use our bountiful financial and material resources in a way that benefits everyone, not just the super-rich. Just like the Congolese don’t choose to pop out of their mothers in the midst of a civil war, Americans don’t choose to be born in an empire, yet here we are, living in the world’s largest and richest superpower (for now). As such, we have a responsibility to the people around the world whose lives, countries, and cultures have been destroyed largely due to our government’s actions (or inactions).
This doesn’t mean we should hang our heads and drown in guilt — it’s a simple recognition that we have a national and collective responsibility to millions of people around the world who’ve endured genuine tragedies far worse than 99.99% of Americans can even begin to fathom. In the meantime, Americans should at least gain a little perspective. It’s the least we can do.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and interviewer. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org