Saturday, August 29, 2009

Doubt and American Pride

Doubt in my work here and overbearing American pride are, to my dismay, occasionally alive within me. Often times these thoughts fill me with anger, confusion, and a cynical mindset. It is incredibly difficult for me to ascertain what of my doubt for compassion and what of my immense American pride is legitimate or valid, and what of it is the result of that which I have absorbed from a potentially twisted society in my nineteen years.

When I interact with guests, get to know them, spend hours working with them, receive rare rudeness, disrespect, or lack of appreciation from them, become exhausted on their behalf; a painful mindset of skepticism and cynicism creeps into my energy. Sometimes thoughts begin to circulate in my mind such as, “She doesn’t need this shampoo,” “Why doesn’t he have the respect to say thank you when I open the door?” “Why has it become expected that I will just hand out food?” “Why won’t he do his chore correctly, when that is all we ask of him?” Or even things as bad as, “Why did he come all the way from Honduras just to sit in the sala all day?”

To ground myself and understand how ludicrous these thoughts are, I project them on myself…compare it all to me. Do I really need the shampoo that I use? Do I say thank you every time that I walk into my home? Do I say thank you every time I take food out of the fridge? Do I always do chores around the house fully even though that is the only thing my mom asks of me? Is it OK when I waste days sitting around, even though I have the privilege to take advantage of so many options? The answer to all of these questions is no.

Why then I wonder, is my mind able to resent these qualities in the guests, but accept them in myself? Is it because I somehow feel like I have earned the right to these qualities? Or that because the shampoo I take, the door I open, the food I eat, or the time I spend is more ‘mine’ because my family ‘earned’ it? Is it because I think I have earned what I use?

Above, some guests pose with proudly decorated
zombies who roamed the paths during a 'Music
Under the Stars' event at Chamizal National Park.

To be frank, I have hardly earned the right to anything…I was just born extremely lucky as a citizen of the US and to a loving family that can provide for me.

It seems that the essence of the dynamic that I find myself uncomfortable with is the very dynamic which I strive to build; a power dynamic in which I am not treated like a superior. Why then, am I resentful of this balanced power dynamic once it exists? Why do I take pleasure to being called ‘Mr. Dan,’ while I know the distortion it creates? Who do I think I am to say that anybody doesn’t deserve what we provide, the very basic services? Who am I to cling to power and separation, while at the same time I try offer solidarity. How do I let this ambiguity exist within me?

I write this all because I want it to be known that in me, these thoughts do exist. I too experience moments of doubt and distrust. I too project blame on the immigrants and on the economically marginalized Americans. I do experience these thoughts. They exist in extreme ambiguity, in contradiction with my thoughts and energy of solidarity and compassion. But the thoughts that prevail, and that I know in my gut are right, are the ones that are compassionate, trusting, and rooted in solidarity. The rest, are that of a palimpsest from a society and a childhood filled with privilege, ignorance, and an unhealthy pride and unyielding sense of deserving. I know that the doubt and distrust—manifestations of fear and of privilege—are on the wrong side of truth, and with effort, should be erased from my life and cultural lens’.

This is all so confusing to me, I can only imagine what you are going through trying to sort through my splattered thoughts on this page.

To contradict myself more, I feel an opposite argument…Although disillusioned at times by our government, I constantly find that I am incredibly patriotic, incredibly proud, and incredibly hopeful. Sometimes I wonder how I can remain this way while witnessing so much pain and suffering that the US has caused, but in the end, patriotism, pride, and hope is very much a part of me.

At the bottom of it all exists patriotism, pride, with equal frustration, pain, and compassion. If understood correctly, I think that all people can maintain each of these feelings in a positive way. I finally have learned to cherish this ambiguity and allow my pride, patriotism, and privilege, to interact happily with my compassion, concern, and offerings of solidarity. After all, nothing here is mutually exclusive, as long as I can figure out how to use all of these deeply rooted views and emotions together.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Parallel I Pick At

In the blog ‘options,’ I wrote about the need to turn people away at the door. A striking parallel came to my mind today and made me skeptical that I may be in the middle of hypocrisy.

The United States, if you think historically, is a nation of immigrants or refugees. As time has passed, this nation has created structures and laws to provide order and/or prosperity. Because of these structures, we must turn people away at our borders, even if they are in need.

Annunciation House is a house of refugees and immigrants. As time has passed, this house created structures and rules to provide peace and order in the house. Because of these rules, we must turn people away at the door, even if they are in need.

Through thinking about this parallel today I was able to determine for me, what justifies turning people away. I tried to grasp what situations constitute a scenario where it is OK to turn away somebody in need.

At first, I couldn’t think anything but that these were exact parallels between the US border and Annunciation House’s front door. I was shocked. I kept saying to myself, “are we incredibly hypocritical? We turn people away in need and at the same time, are often outraged by the US turning away or deporting people in need.

A view of Mexico from the roof of Annunciation House, which is eleven blocks from the border. A guest's shoes are included drying on the roof, where laundry is routinely washed and dried.

But as a sifted through it more, I was able to ascertain differences between the natures of turning people away. Annunciation house and the US both have structures in place. The difference is what the structures are designed to do. At annunciation House, all of our rules exist to keep the house safe and comfortable for the guests. In the US, do all of our laws exist to keep the citizens safe and comfortable? Maybe. But there might be more.

Are our laws also in existence to make us prosperous? To give us advantages over other nations? Do some of them have roots in a fear of another race and culture taking over ‘our’ land? I think it is safe to say, that the answer is yes, which is OK, and very natural for a nation. But then my question is, is it justifiable to turn away people in need in order to continue our agenda of being prosperous and richer and stronger than the rest? I personally think not.

I finally arrived at this: It is not that turning people away, even if in need, is inherently bad or unacceptable. Instead, it all depends on the way that people are turned away, and the reasons they are.

Thankfully, our immigrant rich history has shown that we can achieve both compassion at our borders and the prosperity that we seek.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dreaming American

Today when I sat down with a guest, he began explaining to me his process to make a life for himself in the US. He said it is all about, “waking up each day one step further than you were the day before.” He explained that, “everyday I try to improve. I try to be a better person. I also try to get closer to my working permit, closer to a state ID. I try to get closer to the day that they will take this tracking monitor off of my ankle. Everyday, I think, I am getting closer to being successful,” he continued confidently, “right now, things are hard, but you have to squeeze the fruit to get the juice, and one day, I will have the juice.” All of this is intensely hopeful and positive, and it does indeed seem like he is taking steps forward each day. But a grave question was echoing in my mind as he spoke these words. How long can this productive pattern continue for a black man in America with deportation orders, no money, no family, and limited English? Will there eventually be a wall that he hits, where the opportunity he came for in America is no longer available? Can he achieve the potentially fabled American Dream? I simply don’t know.

The American Dream is one idea that many people in this country appreciate. Our culture seems to hold its notion close to our hearts and carry it high with pride. It is the American Dream, that hastened—if not caused—the white settlement of America, and it is that same American Dream that inspires people from all over the world to uproot from there home and seek a better life today. The American Dream manifests ideas of opportunity, freedom, and to some, relief from suffering. Whether this manifestation is accurate, I simply don’t know.

What is it about our nation that allows for the American Dream to occur, if it does indeed? What structures exist to ensure its possibility? What actions do we need to take to maintain or improve these structures? It seems to me that the idea of the American Dream is dependent upon a scenario in which race, class, and family connections are not of central importance to ‘success.’ Meaning that someone of a minority race, from a poor family, and with little connections can find ‘success.’ To what extent does that scenario actually exist? To me, the American Dream is all about acceptance. More than just the acceptance of people that are different from ourselves, but also the acceptance that people with ‘less’ have a right to ‘more,’ that people who suffer have a right pursue happiness, that people who are starving, have a right to find food, that people who are dying to live, deserve a fair chance. The idea of the American Dream is what could provide that chance.

But there is a sobering catch, a contradiction, and an assumption built into the American Dream that has become rooted deeply in my views during my life as a citizen. The notion of the American Dream includes projected views of the poor and of poverty. If we say that, “In this country anybody, if they try hard enough, can create a better, richer, and happier life,” what then are we inherently saying about those who are not making it, those who live in shelters, those who can’t make their lives better, happier, or richer? Through the prism of the American Dream, we are spinning blame on those in society that aren’t making it, because after all, anybody can make it if they really try, so those that don’t, must not be trying. Right? I feel strong traces of these thoughts engrained in my mind, and I am constantly trying to understand them and move away from them. Just because the opportunity to rise from poverty may exist in some small way, does not mean that those who do not find that some small way are failures or have anything less than the dignity of all people. For most people it seems, and to no fault of their own, the American dream will remain that way, just a dream.

If we as a nation were committed to the American Dream, the idea that anybody can make it, then we would not accept the idea of homelessness and poverty in our country. But we explicitly do accept homelessness and poverty as OK and as a seemingly eternal part of our system. By including money for shelters, food stamps, etc. in our federal budget, we are thereby admitting that we don’t have a system that works, or a system that can keep people out of poverty and away from hunger. It is in fact being complacent, and accepting of the fact that our system cannot support our people.

Above, three guests pose on a couch in the sala on the first day of school.

Immigrants don’t come to the US asking for food, a better job, housing, or anything else, they come asking for a chance to find these things within our system. I think they deserve the chance. We as citizens must not forget our roots in this country, and what allowed us to be here, we must not deny the very notion of the American Dream that brought us here, for those that are seeking it today. If we can’t know that the guest that I sat down with today can find a good life, and get the juice he dreams of from the US if he continues to take steps ahead each day, then I think we have lost the spirit of that idea which we keep close to our hearts, and boast high in the air; the fabled American Dream.

I am one American, one of many, that is dreaming of an American Dream that can become an American reality. Am I being unrealistic in this hope? I simply don’t know.