Reconciling Privilege


Kendra Borowski is a friend from high school. After reading my letter to John Stevens, Kendra began exploring options for a possible shoe drive from the United States to refugees in Europe.

Dear Kendra:

I left Greece in early December and returned stateside on Christmas Eve. I’ve done some more traveling since, but I continue to think about what you asked me when I was still volunteering in the refugee camp:

How do I reconcile being so privileged among such a terrible situation?

Groton. Stanford. UVA. I have a job that I enjoy and no longer worry about a paycheck. I have an old Land Cruiser and a new motorcycle. My mom has season tickets to the Nationals, and I’ll fly from Austin to DC for the home opener. You’re right: I am privileged. And your question is a good one: how to reconcile that with the vast number of others who aren’t?

In Moria I met a teenager who had walked from Afghanistan to Turkey, then crossed to Greece by raft. He carried everything he owned in a single plastic bag. It was winter and he was heading north, yet he owned no socks. How do I reconcile what I have with what he doesn’t? After I left the camp, I decided to do some personal travel before heading home: Budapest, Vienna, Venice. While thousands of refugees walked across countries and stood in weeks-long lines at overcrowded border crossings, I was able to overfly the entire route simply because I had a blue passport and a credit card. My mother is from Damascus; as far as I know, I had distant relatives who were shivering 30,000 feet below. How in the world do I reconcile that?

It’s All Random

There’s a concept in political philosophy called the Veil of Ignorance. Imagine it’s 1850 and you ask a slave-owner in the South whether he thinks slavery is fair. “Sure,” he might reply. Ask a slave, though, and you’re likely to get a different answer. The reason it’s so difficult to come to an agreement on what fair means is because we all approach it with our own backgrounds. The concept of Veil of Ignorance is intended to resolve this by separating understanding from experience.

Imagine you’re floating above the earth in a pre-born state. You’re blindfolded and have an equally likely chance of being born as anyone in society. Are there any roles you’d want to take off the table first? “Well,” the plantation master may say, “I wouldn’t want to be born a slave.” If he says this, and if everyone else says this, then it suggests that slavery is unfair and that we as a society should do something about it. If nobody would want to be born a slave, then certainly nobody should.

I’m not crazy about income taxes; I’d love to keep more of my salary. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to be born a poor kid in Appalachia where schools aren’t very good; if I were him and he were me, I might think that was pretty unfair. So maybe I should reevaluate my thoughts on federalism and the fairness of marginal tax rates.

Of course, I’m not sure what the practical consequences are of the Veil of Ignorance. I imagine most people in this country agree that it’s unfair that refugees halfway around the world have to flee their homes because of ISIS beheadings and geopolitics. But it’s election season, and I doubt this is going to translate into some open-arms policy for Muslim migrants. Still, I think the Veil of Ignorance is valuable if for no other reason then because it makes clear just how arbitrary our assignments are. How do I reconcile being so privileged? In many ways I don’t; I had nothing to do with it. I could try to make sense of it, but that would be like trying to find meaning in a random number generator.

Instead, perhaps all I can do is whatever I can, which in this case meant pitching in when the rafts arrived on the northern beaches. And when there wasn’t much for me to do there, volunteering to provide midnight medical care at the processing center. And once the real doctors arrived, collecting a discarded tarp, buying a few hundred disposable razors, and building a Shave Shack. I wouldn’t want to be born a refugee. But if I were, I’d at least like to be clean shaven.

Still, this probably isn’t a very satisfying answer to your question. The Shave Shack was nice, but at best it was twenty good minutes among thousands of miserable hours. Even though the refugee crisis wasn’t something I necessarily had to reconcile, it was still a difficult situation to witness…and an extraordinarily difficult situation for the refugees to endure. Fortunately, the word “endurance” is closely related to time. And time is something I turned to.

It’s All Quick

Budapest. Vienna. Venice. It’s curious that those are the cities I visited. Budapest was a centre of Renaissance culture, Vienna was the capital of the mighty Austrian Empire, and Venice was one of the most influential centers of art and commerce for 400 years. Yet none of this is true anymore. Each city remains incredibly beautiful, yes, but their influence faded as the world kept spinning.

I was in my early thirties when I first started working on Mathalicious. While other friends were getting married and having children, I was living with my mother and writing math lessons from a second-floor home office. As you might imagine, I had plenty of moments where I wondered whether I was wasting my life, whether I was letting it pass me by. On particularly angsty evenings, I’d walk outside and look up at the stars.

“Even if you are making a big mistake,” I’d console myself, “The stars will never notice.”

The stars have existed for billions of years and will exist for billions more. But us? We’re here and then we’re gone. I know how morbid that sounds, but I found solace in the understanding that even the worst-case scenario wasn’t that bad, at least not in any grand scheme. As terrible as the refugee situation is — and it is terrible (and it only seems to be getting worse) — eventually it’ll end. Eventually the ideology will stop spreading. Eventually the conflict will stop raging. Eventually the rafts will stop coming and everyone will go home, wherever home ends up being. Eventually everything that’s happening now will become something that happened once: a paragraph in a history textbook. Maybe it’ll happen in one year. Maybe it will happen in twenty. But either way, it will happen. And relative to the stars, it’ll happen soon. At the equator, the Earth spins at 1000 miles per hour. There’s something cathartic about that. There’s something comforting in knowing that the planet will continue to spin, and everything on its surface will continue to change.

Of course, this isn’t that satisfactory, either. Not in the moment, anyway. It’s hard not to feel hopeless in the middle of a refugee camp. It’s hard not to shake your fist at the sky and curse whatever force — whatever radical group, whatever government, whatever god — would see a toddler wash up on the shore. I don’t recall all the stories I heard, but I know I didn’t hear any happy ones. No matter how fast the rotation, how fleeting the moment, how cosmic the perspective, it’s still hard.

It’s All Hard

And yet strangely, I think it was this realization that kept me from reacting as emotionally to the refugee crisis as I expected to: the realization that it’s all hard. That no matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what you have, life is really hard.

A refugee is by definition someone with something to look forward to: a new home, a new life. Whose life is harder, then: a migrant in Greece, or a retiree in Manhattan who feels as though she has nothing left to contribute? Whose life is more painful: a father from Aleppo who lost his son to the cold, or an executive in Denver whose wife left him and whose children won’t return his calls? I’m sure we both have friends whose lives look idyllic on Facebook: the smiling pictures, the vacation updates. But who knows what’s beneath that, and how do I even compare the experience of a Syrian refugee with that of a billionaire whose insecure self-loathing is so complete that it leaves no room for empathy? Is there any comparison, or is the entirety of the human experience just a variation on hard?

I’m privileged. Indeed, I’m extraordinarily fortunate. Yet I still wonder if I’m living my life correctly. I’m 37 and have never been married. Did I do something wrong? I’ve seen my father twice since I was thirteen. I don’t think about it much — it’s just part of my reality — but has it resulted in some inability to trust that’s so invisible as to be uncorrectable? I have no idea. Many of the refugees I met fled because they felt they had no choice. How awful it must feel to have no options. And yet does it feel any better to have so many options that you’re stuck in paralysis-by-analysis: a thousand roads diverged in a yellow wood, and be one traveler long I stood, and stood, and stood, and stood? I don’t know. I don’t know which I’d prefer: to look back on my life and know that I only had one path, or to look back and fear that I took the wrong one. I’m grateful for my privilege, don’t get me wrong. At the same time, I have no idea all the pains and insecurities that I live with, much less those that others do. All I know is that we do. All I know is that however the exterior situation looks, the interior one is another matter…and that most humans, no matter the zip code, have situations that are pretty hard.

And so, standing in the middle of a refugee camp and looking at the hundreds of campfires tended by thousands of refugees, I suppose what most helped me “reconcile” the gap between my situation and theirs was the thought that perhaps the gap was smaller than it seemed. That, at the end of the day, we’re all refugees trying to find our way and hoping we get there alright.

The universe is impossibly big, and we’re here for such a short amount of time. What a profound mystery, this life. I have no idea what it means. I have no idea what larger purpose our struggles serve. But I have to believe that they serve something. I have to believe that the randomization of our lots — the seeming unfairness of the distribution —  serves some larger purpose. And in the meantime, all I can do is try to live my life in a way that mitigates as much as possible the consequences of the assignments, so that the next time around, we might worry a bit less when our numbers get called.

March 8, 2016