Saturday, February 13, 2010

Maintaining Perspective

Budding trees in Geneva

There is a poster that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has made, which says simply, in black Arial-bold letters on a white background, "A REFUGEE WOULD LOVE TO HAVE YOUR PROBLEMS."  I saw that poster and thought to myself, 'OK, point taken.'  Because there is a legitimate point to be made there.  However, if we start to think about this message metaphysically, if a refugee did have my problems, then it is likely that this person would not in fact be or have ever been a refugee.  This person who gained my problems as they are to me would need to have a personal history very close or identical to mine, and this precludes them from having many of the experiences that would categorize them as a refugee.  So while I appreciate the message that the UNHCR is trying to send with this poster, I also note that it is a point that is metaphysically impossible to make, and so it fails in many ways except the basic 'it really sucks to be a refugee, and compared to being a refugee, your life is just fine, so maybe you should STFU and stop whining.'


This basic point is also up for debate, because our problems are relative to our lives, and just because one person is living a life where basic necessities are provided and opportunities are open for personal growth and fulfillment, we can not simply say that this person has no right to be sad, stressed, upset, depressed, and a variety of other emotions that maybe someone who had far less in terms of material goods - one of the billions of people living in developing countries for example - would not understand this person having when surrounded by so much apparent comfort.


I say all this as a way of thinking through how and why someone like me, in a position of privilege in comparative and global terms, can spend so much of her time feeling listless and bummed out.  In the past six months my life has not been a cake-walk, and I know that there are specific events which all or many would quickly agree are serious bummers.  However, my day-to-day life is pretty OK.  And yet, I was walking from my apartment downtown today (grey again, and cold) and realised that I was feeling despondent again.  The simple change in my life from yesterday is that Drew has gone to Ireland.  The many things behind taking his departure so hard include not having a strong social network or support system here, and my landlord recently revealing herself to be rather unfriendly.  


The short story with the landlord is that Drew and I are homeless for the last week of February because my landlord's religious beliefs dictate that he and I can not stay here in the same room together.  Now when I am staying in her apartment, even though I pay rent, I feel like an exile.  Last week was split between staying in a hostel, which was insanely expensive, and in a friend's roommate's room while that roommate was in Madrid.  I found out this afternoon that a friend's old roommate has agreed to let us stay with him, in his living room, on a couch/single bed combo.   This is great news, but I still have to figure out some practical considerations, such as how to get to work from this new further-away apartment, and what to do with my belongings for that week and the weeks following when Drew and I travel through Europe.  The nomadic lifestyle is alright in some circumstances, but I will still be going to work in the last week of February, and this causes some extra stress, since one can not look like one has been sleeping on a couch when one arrives at the office.  


Sometimes one thing can change and your whole life seems qualitatively different.  I take that to be simply true, and not a matter of the subjective or comparative quality of a person's life.  I've never been one to tell someone who is dramatically upset about their new car being scratched that it's not so bad - remember, millions of people in the world die every day of starvation.  While it's true that billions of people have lives of serious deprivation and disadvantage, I think that it's still legitimate for us of the few with advantage to feel bad about how life is going on a given day. 


Drew's arrival made life in general feel manageable, and mostly because I didn't feel like I was alone in my corner dealing with the bumps of life alone.  His departure makes me feel that way again, and I realise that when braiding the great rope of life, it is really amazing to have another person working with you to untangle the loose end as you plait the strands together.  I am really looking forward to him getting back, and I'm going to focus on battening the hatches until Thursday.  Even though I know my life is not so bad in some global view, it still seems embattled sometimes, and the Geneva period has had that feeling from start to finish.  


The buds on the trees remind me that it is almost spring, and spring means back to Canada, and that feels so good that I can feel warmth and energy spread from the centre of my chest every time I think of touching down in Montreal.

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