I remember a year ago, on a hot and humid afternoon, I sat down at a bench here in Toronto, finishing an ice cream cone, watching my delightful 3 year old daughter and beautiful wife weaving through a farmer’s market in the park.
A headline and a picture on a newspaper, left behind, caught my eye.
It was devastating. I tried, but I could not help holding back an ocean of grief. The father shattered by loss and the son dead and on display to the whole world.
Instinct born from suffering…
And when I let myself erupt into full tears, heaving and sobbing, trying to hold myself up. Not hide from passers by. Not trying to push the pain away. Just terribly wrought, I realized how I could easily have been that boy. Having been a refugee child myself and how incredibly fortunate that my family and I survived our journey and that there was asylum waiting for us.
Having nursed and carried my baby girl around since birth with my wife and being naturally protective of her safety. As she now ran about, curious and free… How I could in a split second be that father. How her fragile life could be extinguished in a millisecond of a car passing by too close or over time if she were to become sick as too many terminally ill children do.
The deepest impulse that came to me then was a conviction to do something about this. To help those who are in the vulnerable shoes of refugees that my parents, my brother and I wore 33 years ago.
I forgot this instinct for a bit. Comfort and daily routines set back in.
Then, it haunted me. Rightly, I gave up fighting and gave into it.
I gathered a bunch of creative friends and we created a performance called “Refuge” raising money for newly landed refugees in Toronto.
We raised $1200 and brought a lot of people together. Citizens and new immigrants. We heard stories of loss, pain, guilt, shame, and joy and gratitude. It was rich and very satisfying. My heart grew and so did my community.
And it brought up a conflict with my wife. Should we sponsor a refugee family and host them in our basement? Or not?
Torn between Doing More (or less)…
I fought for doing so. No matter the cost. No matter how the basement was our way to generate income and pay down debt (which I loath). We should make the sacrifice. Sign the papers and we’d find a way.
My wife took a practical stand. We don’t know them. We are overwhelmed in just keeping up with our own lives. We can’t afford the long term cost: financially and emotionally.
She was right. We could not have done it on our own.
I was right too. We would find a way.
With two unexpected floods and many hidden surprises, the basement renos were extended indefinitely. Making it impossible.
As the Canadian election crystalized into a choice between defending our boundaries against foreign evildoers or opening our arms to those in need… some of our friends and aquaintances started sponsorship groups.
Of course! It could be done if we banded together. I donated and lent a hand. But, it wasn’t enough.
There is need all around us…
A few months later. In trying to give away old toddler clothes, we met a very gracious and lovely mother and her two children: one the age of my daughter, fiesty and full of joy, the other a 1 and half year old boy curious and sweet. They were recent immigrants from Pakistan and in citizenship limbo.
Slowly her story unravelled us and made both our hearts stretch wider.
Holed up in an apartment in the suburbs of Toronto with another family. She was grieving her husband’s death. Unable to hold onto her painful burdens, she shared them reluctantly and gratefully with us.
And all the while, her instinct was to care for us and give hospitality.
How it is changing me…
I felt then how incredible it is to behold that someone who is in such acute and intense need and desperate for the most basic things can have so much to give others. My heart received her trust and confidence and her pain and I felt an even stronger desire to give back more than I thought I had to give before. Much more than money or stuff. To give her time and friendship. So did my wife. The longing to care for her bonded us more deeply as well.
I felt humbled as well. Like Piglet…
On every level…
Lately, I’ve started seeing how this feeling of humility and fragility of life and how much we all depend on one another, exists as a reality or perhaps a guiding truth on every level…
The ice caps are melting and the planet is in midst of massive change. Many will lose everything they have ever known. Many will die in our lifetime. We are all on this round ball together, hurling through space. Intimately intertwined for our survival and maybe much more…
On a mundane level, I realize that every second I am interdependent on some thousands of other life forms. Bees to pollinate my food. Bus and subway drivers to take me across town. Framers to grow my food. The millions of mostly women and children manufacturing clothes and goods, millions of men building roads and buildings… Mold and bacteria to digest my refuse. When I slip a can of tuna into my bag to eat later, it is there because of the ocean of organisms, still breathing life, and due to fishermen, graphic designers, truck drivers, etc… There is no room in my small brain to even compute the real breadth of this, let alone time write about it.
And then there is maybe even another reason we are here. Not just to produce, consume and pro-create. Maybe, we are all here to also learn and evolve from this joint experience, forced on us by creation. Whether you believe that or not. I choose to buy in to it because it makes life much more meaningful when I do.
How did I get here…?
Looking at myself honestly, I see some good qualities, some bad ones, and a tonne of privilege and good luck which has brought me to be in a very fortunate position in life.
I’ve “created” so many wonderful experiences. And I am keenly aware of how much — or rather how little — it was me picking myself up by the bootstraps (as this article reminds us all).
To be living in one of the most resource rich, safe and liberal countries in the world at a time of impending environmental catastrophe and growing global economic and political oppression. And to be graced with a dear family, owning a home (in an outrageously expensive city) and so many dear and supportive friends… I am keenly aware of how incredibly rich I am and how I could spend the last 40-50 years of my life simply thanking everyone who has helped me get this far.
What can I do…?
The metaphor of the elevator of success and privilege is apt. I’ve been lucky to be at the right place and time to catch it and resourceful enough to hold on for ride. But, that elevator is being hoarded and held onto by us few. It needs to be sent back down. Often. And maybe many many more elevators need to be built. Yesterday. So that all of us can travel towards greater safety, freedom and abundance.
If you’re still with reading this bit of rant and still me, in some solidarity, I want you to do this…
What I hope and want you do…
This is going to sound brutal (at first), but I want you to fall into some hell hole of pain that exists and which your soul is calling you to witness and fall into. I want you to be ok with this and trust me when I say that it will make your heart stronger and bigger.
And more importantly, feeling this almost unbearable pain will make you feel compelled to do something to help others who are consumed with the tragedy that bears this pain. You will want to comfort and ease their pain, and in so doing help yourself with the bit that you carry. And if this suffering that others experience is unnecessary in any way — a product of injustice or negligence — your willful indoctrination will keep you awake at night until you do something about stopping the cause. Your conscience will not ever be clean like you wish it was because of the mistakes you and I have already made in living our lives and looking the other way. But, neither will it stay buried under comfort or behind some cloak of denial protecting you from the pain. You will be free and more generous and much more grateful for all this daring to care.
And maybe the greatest pain will be to realize how fragile and vulnerable you are too Despite your wealth. Your youth (or what you imagine is left of it). And even people who love you. You and I and everyone will die. And we will wonder — if death is not sudden but creeps up on us slowly — what we did with the precious time together. Did we care? Did we feel for and reach out to help one another?
I hope I haven’t scared you or you haven’t curled up into a ball of shame or guilt — like many might. I hope you feel whatever you feel right now and join me in doing our small but very significant part in sending those elevators back down. As often and as quickly as possible.
If you’re stuck for how and for who and when, I invite you to donate to the family I mentioned above. The gracious mother and her kids are in need of funds to settle and start a life. Read more about their story and chip in here.