“People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.”
from Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
I’m reading this excellent book right now, and gems like the above jump out at me with broader significant meaning than just the context (of a family moving from Tamil Nadu in India during the reign of Indira Ghandi to Canada to start over). Anyone (sound familiar?) who has ever found it no longer possible or tolerable to live in a place that stifles all your efforts to thrive and provide a future for your family will recognize the sentiments in this passage. The fact that it was Canada is interesting, considering how many of us in this challenging, disturbing political climate here in the US have sometimes found their thoughts migrating north over the border. (Don’t tell me it’s never crossed your mind!) When you’re desperate, even arctic shock isn’t a deterrent.
I know many people, including my own family and ourselves, who came to this conclusion, that they needed to find a new place to live, for their future and/or children’s sake. If they stayed, everything they tried to accomplish would be torn down, nullified. They’d be suffocated, snuffed out. So many people in this country never get the chance, or take the risk, to start over in a more encouraging, progressive atmosphere. They and their families exist and die in “quiet desperation”.
I’ve never understood how people can do that, just give in, settle, and die. But having lived in post-depression era Ohio for two years, just waiting for the moment we can afford to move and start over before we die, I can begin to see how it happens. People just lose all hope, incentive, motivation, become apathetic and set in their ways, and never get out. Their families have always been here, and so shall they remain. Even tornados, flooding, or more intangible threats to their wellbeing won’t motivate them to upset the status quo. They’re resigned.
Ironically, these tend to be the same ignorant people who vote (if they vote) for some dangerous psycho clown who wants to return us to “the good old days” of bigotry, racism, phobias, and isolationism, ensuring that their quality of life and the very earth itself will be even worse for them and their grandkids. Go figure.
But this isn’t another political rant (ha, could have fooled you). It’s about why people leave it all behind to start over in an unfamiliar place. Political/economic refugees and migrants know this reality all too well, because they have no choice. Having lived in this backward midwestern state, I hear mind-boggling horror stories of extreme poverty, deprivation, and struggle that extended into this century, and continue to influence people’s mindsets and behaviors. My background, which I thought of as normal and average, which allowed me mobility and education that I took for granted, turns out to be exceptional privilege compared to the typical disadvantage around here.
If I felt intellectually and culturally stifled somewhere, I would just make it my business to move on, but people at this economic/social level considered themselves fortunate to just find a well-paying industry job for life, with a pension, be able to buy a modest house with a lawn in a blue-collar suburb of a blighted city, and settle in for the long haul. Their under-educated kids just mill around indifferently, with no future prospects. It probably doesn’t even occur to the folks who stayed behind after the economy crashed to risk starting over elsewhere, even if they could. They’re afraid of change, progress, the unknown.
Sometimes, it takes both desperation and vision to uproot. Having nothing left to lose, you visualize a place on earth to build upon, to leave better for your children than you found it. You know ultimately you can’t control the destructive consequences of the majority’s stupid actions, or save the entire earth from being destroyed, so you try to preserve a small piece of it, and with it your integrity and sanity. You try to create a place for you and your children to breathe, feel accepted, accept others, learn, imagine, invent, without fear of being crushed by ignorant savages. It’s a hard place to find, but is there an alternative?
“If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet.” Trite, but true. There’s always a choice to go forward, or get left behind. Finding a better, not just tolerable, life is worth the risk. You only have one.