Post 40

A Story of Exile:
Reflections on the Life of the Stranger

[F]or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

                                  – Matt. 25:43

I think almost everyone wants to tell their story – the story of what has happened and what is happening in their life, whether it is something big, like the fire that raged through the neighbourhood, or something small, like the strange coincidence that happened this morning on the way in to work.  We even want to tell each other about the non-real things, because those happened too, in a way.  Last night’s dream for example, almost seems like a story worth telling.

Haven’t you had the situation where you’ve dreamt about someone you know and it was so realistic and memorable that now you want to tell them all about it?  “Hey, last night I dreamt you and I were clowns and we worked in a travelling circus and then you disappeared for a while and I couldn’t figure out where you were but then I looked up and saw you riding a unicycle on a trapeze rope and I was like, ‘Hey, when did you learn to do that?’ but you couldn’t hear me and then all of a sudden we were outside and somehow at that point it changed so that we were near the ocean and it was night and we were watching fireworks and having a picnic.  Wasn’t it incredible?”

But of course, you don’t say that.  And you kind of forget about it, until you see them later that day and you remember how last night you were both clowns, but then you don’t say it then either, because, well, you know that’s not the kind of story you tell.

. . . unless, I suppose, you’re paying someone to listen.

For about $100 per hour, you can find someone to listen to this story and other ones as well.  Psychologists will listen and perhaps even come up with a hidden meaning to your dream, though I think this practice is less in vogue than it used to be. At the very least, the psychologist will indulge your desire to describe it, since he’s being paid to listen, empathize and analyze.   Chesterton said “psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.” (“Fads and Public Opinion,” What I Saw in America.)

And indeed, despite all the criticism that is levelled at the Catholic Church for requiring periodic confession, the fact is that people need someone to talk to, especially about things that matter.  And in a society that has abandoned the Christian practice of confession (arguing either on the one hand that it’s unnecessary because you can just ‘pray directly to God,’ or arguing on the other hand that it’s unnecessary because there’s no such thing as sin), people are finding new and unusual ways of unburdening themselves.  It makes me think of a river that has lost its normal route – now it must overflow its banks and go all over the place.

One of my friends said that the most exhausting aspect of being a massage therapist was the fact that so many of her clients wanted to unburden themselves and tell her all of their life problems and dramas.  It makes sense to me: a client puts himself into the hands of the therapist in a unique physical way, and now that he trusts the therapist with his body, it’s not a big step to trust the therapist with his stories.  My friend wound up abandoning that line of work largely because she found it not only physically demanding, but also highly psychologically and emotionally demanding.  It’s hard work listening to humanity’s issues, and as difficult as it is to give advice, it is probably even more difficult to withhold advice, because it’s not wanted or because it runs the risk of offending a paying customer.  “Hmm, that client never came back after I told him he shouldn’t be cheating on his wife.”

Another therapist friend was telling me some of the things that she has learned about society’s latest experiments in immorality.  There is a lot of suffering amongst teenagers, for example, who have been encouraged to treat their bodies as a means to an end, instead of as something precious.  Truly, that therapist has all sorts of people walking through her door, and over the course of years, she has learned the depths of depravity to which many modern adult Canadians have sunk; things are not as rosy as they appear.  She could tell you stories!  And her detailed knowledge about what’s happening in local high schools has influenced her decision to begin homeschooling her own child.

Hairdressers have the same experience, but I think to a lesser degree, because there’s less intimacy in that setting.  Nevertheless, they also get an earful.  Part of the appeal for the client is that the hairdresser is often outside the client’s normal circle of friends and family, and so it’s so much more like telling a priest in the confessional, who will not reveal what he has heard.

But even when there’s no anonymity, there’s no shortage of people wanting to tell their story.  They will go on television talk shows and confess all sorts of things.  In fact, these people don’t want to be anonymous.  Their sensational story is going to be their method of becoming famous, in some cases.  I have to be careful here, though, because this doesn’t cover every instance.  Many good people suffer in the telling of their stories, but tell them anyway, in order to warn other people about certain dangers, or in order to help other people who are facing the same problem.  And one additional aspect of their suffering is the public perception that they’re seeking fame.

The rise of blogging can also be explained, to a large degree, by the desire to tell one’s story.  For many bloggers, their ‘invisible friends’ are a very significant part of their own support network.  The blogger writes about the latest events in her life, and she can imagine that here, at last, are people who really understand and sympathize with her.  Whether this in fact is the case or not, the blogger still has the cathartic experience of telling her story.

Indeed, in day to day life, there are always more story-tellers than listeners, especially empathetic listeners.  I saw a t-shirt the day before yesterday: “Please wait a moment, while I try to care.”  I thought, yes, that about sums up the modern attitude.

I feel sorry for all the people in the world who don’t have people to hear their stories.  Children, for example, have a lot of things they want to talk about, but I don’t know if the world slows down enough for them to be heard, especially when both parents are working outside the home.  And husbands and wives also race by each other, preoccupied with work or with independent internet interests.  I saw an ad promoting home wifi capabilities (or something similar).  It showed an outline of a house, with one person in every room, each using one device.  Everyone in the house was using something different, and the walls of the house separated them all.  I thought, yes, that about sums up the modern lifestyle.  It makes those not-too-long-ago days of the family sitting around glued to the television set seem downright cozy.

And too many seniors are also left with nobody to talk to.  I spoke with a Sister of Providence, who said that there was one senior sister who was losing her ability to speak after having been in a neglectful seniors’ residence, and she had to be rehabilitated.  Bit by bit, she regained her ability to talk.

And on the topic of seniors, it’s too bad that our culture underestimates the advantages of grandchild to grandparent time.  These interactions are in so many ways a perfect fit.  It’s so often the case that grandparents and children are moving at a slower pace, and are more able to enjoy each other.  I’m not saying that grandparents aren’t busy, but rather that they are often willing to make themselves available to younger children in a way that harried parents aren’t able to.

Of course, there is no set of years where it’s good to be left without a listener, but I think our world would be much improved if those aged from about 9 to 19 had more time with mature adult listeners to work through their issues.  It’s a time when physically and intellectually, these young people can seem like independent adults, but they are grappling with really big issues with very little preparation.  Yet it’s at this point that parents start accepting a much-diminished role.  They see their child interacting with friends and are happy for the friendships, without realizing that the child still needs the parent in a really deep and significant way.  If a parent steps back too much, and parents via text messaging (“where r u?”), this leaves a very big void in the life of the tween or teen or young adult, who loses the ability to tell his story to someone who has been through these turbulent years.  Young people often ooze maturity and mimic a nonchalant cool attitude, but underneath all of that, there’s insecurity and searching.

Who knows? Perhaps part of the reason parents give their children so much space is because they don’t want to have these more important conversations.  Maybe they feel hypocritical to question their child’s behaviour when they know that they’ve made so many mistakes of their own.   But the truth is that mistakes are a source of very useful information.  I’m not suggesting that parents confess all past failings; my point is that parents shouldn’t self-disqualify because they haven’t been saints.  Painful past experiences might prove providentially useful – now, for example, the father will think of warning his daughter about the mixed motives of the new boyfriend, and now the mother will be able to fully empathize with her teenager, because she knows all about the heartbreak and healing of a break-up.

Without a parent being receptive to a young person’s stories, the young person will seek advice from his peers.  This is usually worse.  I say ‘usually’ because some adults do embrace a false notion of freedom, (where freedom means licentiousness – doing whatever you want whenever you want) and themselves act like dogs in an off-leash park.  Now these parents might not be able to offer stellar advice, but at least they offer their love and empathy.  And their unconditional love for their child puts them in a unique position.  They can be a true friend on the journey:

Imposing things by force, in an authoritarian manner, is not the right way to teach.  The ideal attitude of parents lies more in becoming their children’s friends – friends who will be willing to share their anxieties, who will listen to their problems, who will help them in an effective and agreeable way.

Parents should find time to spend with their children, to talk with them.  They are the most important thing – more important than business or work or rest.  In their conversations parents should make an effort to listen, to pay attention, to understand, to recognize the fact that their children are sometimes partly right – or even completely right – in some of their rebellious attitudes.

. . .

Listen to your children.  Give them your time, even the time that you have reserved for yourselves.  Show them your confidence; believe whatever they tell you, even if sometimes they try to deceive you. Don’t be afraid when they rebel, because, at your age, you yourselves were more or less rebellious.  Go to meet them halfway and pray for them.  If you act in this Christian manner, they will come to you with simplicity, instead of trying to satisfy their legitimate curiosity by taking it to some rough or vulgar friend.

St. Josemaria Escriva, Marriage: A Christian Vocation, Homily contained in Christ is Passing By

I like St. Josemaria Escriva.

Chesterton said Spaniards think like soldiers.

Anyway, when I started this post, I was planning to talk about a particular kind of story, and that is the story of the immigrant.

I like asking immigrants about their life before Canada (“B.C.” if you like), because here’s a group of people with fascinating stories to tell!  The life of an immigrant is cleaved into two halves: there were the years before the move, and the years after.

In particular, I like to ask them about their line of work in their home country.  How many times have I seen their faces light up when they begin to talk about this!  “I was a farmer!”  “I was a teacher!” It’s so often the case that their work involved considerable effort, and gave them both identity and prestige.  This identity and prestige can be lost to them when they start life over in a place where English is essential.

We’d feel something of the same loss, if we had to start life again in some foreign place where our previous workplace or educational credentials didn’t count for much, and where we were unable to use our first language.  We’d likewise probably be more than happy to tell anyone our story – our story about how, when we lived in Canada, we worked as a real estate agent, an editor, a lawyer.

I remember the man I met who works in the shoe section of a department store.  I had a pile of receipts that needed to be reprocessed – it was some kind of mess involving returning this, repurchasing that, applying this discount and that credit – and I watched as his mind whirred really capably through all this.  It prompted me to ask him what he did before Canada.  As it turns out, he has a couple of Masters degrees and is currently working to get licensed here as a naturopath, if I remember correctly.

And then there was the fellow from Mongolia, who was a language professor there.  In addition to Mongolian, he knows Arabic, Russian, Persian and a Chinese dialect which isn’t Mandarin or Cantonese.  I think there might have been one more language too.  Anyway, he said that when he came to Canada, he knew only two phrases, “Hello” and “Thank you.”  (It must have felt odd to be able to speak so many languages and then live somewhere that you can’t make a sentence.)

He’s working as a house painter right now.

And as I think of Europe, I was surprised to see such huge numbers of migrants hawking goods there.  The travel videos don’t prepare you for that.   The migrants I saw were from northern Africa.

The fascinating thing about these salesmen was that they all looked kind of the same, and they all acted the same.  When I say they looked the same, I’m echoing Chesterton’s words that “a nation is never a type, but it is nearly always a tangle of two or three roughly recognizable types.” (Chapter V of his Saint Thomas Aquinas)  They were all men, and they ranged in age from about 20 to 65.  They had similar clothing, haircuts, accents, build and height.

And they all had the same product and the same approach.  They would stand around in the areas which were thick with tourists, and they would approach them saying, “Selfie? Selfie-stick?” They were selling holders for cell phone cameras.  The idea is that you put your camera into them, and then you can hold your camera further away from yourself.  A tourist might want such a thing, in order to get more of the background into the photo.  There were so many of these migrant salesmen that in some areas, you would be approached by one salesman every thirty seconds.

It was striking how they seemed to act as a unit.  When a few drops of rain fell, it was all the same men, but all of a sudden, all the holders disappeared because now they were all selling umbrellas. “Umbrella?  Umbrella?”

Where did all the umbrellas come from?  Did they have them with them the whole time? It was like a magic trick.

I wondered how they were organized, because they obviously were.  Someone must have gotten all those holders at a wholesale rate and distributed them to the salesmen. Someone planned that umbrellas would be part of their product line during rainy moments, and someone decided that near religious sights, they’d be selling the holders PLUS rosaries.  And I wondered, could they really make any money at all selling these things?  I did see some tourists purchasing them, but not many.  Did they share their profits if they made any?  Did they all live in the same area of the city, saving on rent by living in an over-crowded way?  Were they married?  Did they have children?  How could they feed themselves on such a meagre income?

I thought it would be interesting to follow them around when they weren’t being salesman, to see what their lives were like.  I didn’t do it obviously, but a person wonders about these mysterious people.  Despite acting and looking roughly similar, each of those salesman has a unique story.  I wonder, for starters, what conditions were like where they came from, that they’d prefer selling unnecessary goods to uninterested people.

And the stories of the people fleeing Syria and Iraq are almost surreal; people leading normal lives are transformed into refugees overnight as violence comes to their neighbourhoods. I don’t know if ‘civil war’ is a particularly accurate way of describing the situation; it seems too lopsided to merit the name ‘war.’  Christians are being persecuted, tortured and killed.  Sometimes crucifixion is used as the method of murder.

These are sad stories.  They remind you of the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt.  It will take a long time for these people to recover, and part of the recovery will involve finding new homes, experiencing once again a feeling of being ‘home.’

Everyone needs that – the feeling of having a home, a little piece of the world that belongs to you, and that you belong to.  The sensation that you don’t fit, that you don’t belong, in a world where everyone else seems to fit and seems to be going about their daily business, is very painful and disorienting.

It’s easy to judge those who emigrate and don’t seem to assimilate, but I think this process takes time, and I don’t even know how much control you have over those feelings of nostalgia or homesickness.  Would you be the type who could forget and ‘move on’ at a speed satisfactory to observers, or would you be the type who wants to socialize almost exclusively with the fellow Canadians that you find in a new land?  I don’t know if we can entirely predict our behaviour.  One immigrant reflected that he was more eager to come to Canada than his wife was, but now he finds that she has settled in very well and would never think of returning, but that he misses his homeland.  By contrast, my dentist said that upon returning back to Canada after a visit to his native country, he was surprised to notice how he felt like he was ‘coming home.’

Certainly, the younger you are when the move happens, the more easily you are able to adapt.  And here, I begin a lament.  I worry for the families who come to Canada hoping for a better life, because there’s more than one way to define “a better life.”

So many people come to Canada for the sake of their children.  I knew a woman who was separated from her husband and twin sons for ages before she was able to have them here.  She missed years of their childhood years.  How painful this must have been!  I would see her week after week, and she was always waiting for the next hurdle to be overcome, the next notification of a step completed in the long bureaucratic process.

These parents don’t dwell on the sacrifices that they have to make if it means that their children will have opportunities to have an education, a career and a normal family life.  They are motivated by the love of their children.

They relinquish, in many cases, their own career-related prestige, but they urge their own children to excel academically, so that they can go to university and have a good career here in Canada.  The Mongolian painter tells me that he says to his children that the day they start university will be the day that he gives them keys to their own vehicle “with zero kilometres!” (In other words, it’ll be brand new.) It’s so typical for immigrant parents to really push their children to excel.

He wants the “better life” for them, the happy ending to the story of the big move.  And I want that ending too, for him and for all parents.  The thing is, I’m not sure that modern-day Canada is going to provide the happy ending that they seek.  After all, I live in a country which is changing at a break-neck pace, but change is not the same as progress.

Oversexed and Disneyfied mass media combined with a dumbed-down and agenda-driven educational system sweep everyone – but the young in particular – towards new ideals of hedonism, consumerism and relativism.  Meanwhile, Canada’s Supreme Court dismantles the moral structure of our society, one decision at a time, while the government shrugs its shoulders.  For 25 years, we Canadians have been without any restrictions on abortion whatsoever, a fact which many Canadians don’t even realize; this means that a nine-month old baby which is days away from being born can be killed in the womb without any penalty (and it does happen). Canada is one of only four nations in the world which allows this horrifying and barbaric practice, called ‘late-term abortion’:

It is bad enough that governments in China and North Korea employ forced late-term abortions. The United States and Canada should be ashamed of themselves for providing and promoting the same procedure which, when done elsewhere in the world, is regarded as a human rights violation.

-Rebecca Downs, LifeSite News, Aug 4, 2013

And on February 6th of this year, the Supreme Court struck down the laws prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia.  These are two decisions among many which are destroying the foundation of our country.  The Supreme Court is equipped with highly intelligent people, but as DiscerningOne says, “Intelligence isn’t the same thing as wisdom.”

The country that we offer to newcomers is a shell of what it was formerly, and I am not particularly inclined to expect and demand that newcomers assimilate and accept the values which are currently in fashion.  We used to have a culture, but now we have ‘bread and circuses,’ a phrase explained well by Wikipedia:

This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirical poet Juvenal (circa A.D. 100). In context, the Latin panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which no longer cares for its historical birthright of political involvement. Here Juvenal displays his contempt for the declining heroism of contemporary Romans. Roman politicians passed laws in 140 B.C. to keep the votes of poorer citizens, by introducing a grain dole: giving out cheap food and entertainment, “bread and circuses”, became the most effective way to rise to power.

-Wikipedia, panem et circenses

Indeed, my fear is almost that the children of these newcomers will assimilate.  My fear is that they will all too readily absorb and revel in the cheap delights that our society offers to its young people.  The parents, who naively think that their children go to school in order to learn academics, may find, to their dismay, that their children come home with a new attitude and a new set of values, entirely different from those of their parents.  And on top of all this, these children sometimes become ashamed of their ancestry because it makes them ‘different.’  Do these parents, who have sacrificed so much, also lose the hearts and minds of their children?  I truly hope that this isn’t how the story ends, but in too many cases, this is the outcome.  Dorothy Day lamented in 1952:

Tradition!  We scarcely know the word any more.  We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them.  We scorn nobility in name and in fact.  We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington, all of a pattern . . . These are the attitudes the Irish, the Italians, the Lithuanian, the Slovak and all races begin to acquire in school.  So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language, and no longer listen to their mothers when they say, ‘When I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.’ They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and leave their faith and folk songs and costumes and handicrafts, and try to be something which they call ‘an American.’

-Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist, The Generations Before

I wish we had something better to offer the newcomers to Canada.  I wish we could offer them the country that we used to have – a time when extended family would gather together in the living room and everyone would play instruments and sing and dance or at least tap their feet, a time when men wore hats and removed them whenever they wanted to show respect, a time when women had genuine community with each other, working together to make food and relaxing together to make quilts or something similar, a time when children played freely in the neighbourhood and churches organized dances and nativity plays.  If we had that, then probably assimilation would be a positive thing.

I know that some places around the world still have robust cultures, and I almost want to weep when I hear what they still have and enjoy.  I hear, for instance, how in Serbia, one of the honours of being best man is that he’s the one who leads the kolo dance at the wedding reception (how fun!), and I hear how, in Russia, there’s the day when Russian men give flowers to all the women (how poetic!).  Such traditions!  When I talked with the man who repaired my laptop, also an immigrant, about the decline of culture here in North America, he agreed and exclaimed that he never expected to hear such things from a Canadian.  But I know that I’m not the only one with such sentiments; many Canadians fondly remember a time when ‘tradition’ was a good and powerful word.

It seems that we are in such a hurry to destroy everything that has any connection with the past.  I can say with Chesterton that “It is true that I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile.” (The Judgement of Dr. Johnson, Act III)

And indeed, “exile” is the right word.  I live in the same city that I was born in, but I find that all around me, things are changing at a frenetic pace.  I’m not opposed to natural development, but the current mania with overturning everything just because it’s been done before is short-sighted and irresponsible. Where is the country that I remember from my childhood?  Or for that matter, where is the country that I had three years ago?  I can’t help but wonder, if you leave the people in place, but destroy and exile the culture and values instead, doesn’t that effectively make the populace homeless in an important way?

I haven’t left my country; my country has left me!

Perhaps I have more in common with the migrant than I realized.  Like them, I look around and don’t recognize where I am anymore.  The anthem that plays reminds me of an entirely different time, and if I sing, I sing for the sake of something that was, not something that is.  I’m not proud of where my country is heading, and I wish we could turn it around; I wish I could go to the ‘discard’ pile and fish out all the things that are on the verge of extinction.

Maybe there will be enough people who want this that we’ll see a revival of culture.  I know that those who do homeschool their children are often very interested in preserving tradition, and I hear that gardening is the fastest growing hobby.  Those who revive these things are swimming upstream.

So it’s either go with the flow or swim against the current.

And hey, maybe there’s a third option – maybe a person could just wait it out.  What do you think?  Maybe if I just wait long enough, everything will come full circle, and we’ll all party like it’s 1899.

Let me know when things are normal again.

I’ll be over here in this corner with my beet soup.

Don’t mind me.

It’s just another case of homesickness.  I’m nostalgic for the land I remember, the place we used to have.

That’s my story.

And as I think along these lines, I am intrigued by the idea of a Christian as a pilgrim, as someone who, while appreciating what is here, is also not quite ‘at home.’  And at the end of the day, I suppose that even if a society is doing an excellent job of preserving its culture and living out its traditions, a full earthly life is still just a foretaste of heaven, and will still be incomplete and flawed.  Every society has its problems, because every society is made up of fallible human beings.

The pilgrim concept goes a long way in explaining the sensation that things could fit a lot better than they do.

It says that our short time on earth isn’t the whole story.

It says that there’s another place that will feel a lot more like home, and that will be our happy ending.

And you know, it will be incredible.  You’ll ride your unicycle on the trapeze and I’ll set up the picnic.

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

-Hebrews 13:2

Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind.

-Ezekiel 39:28