Aren’t you worried about the “state of the world?”
This is possibly the most difficult question to answer because I could fill several volumes with my thoughts on this topic. Normally my answers are something like,
“No. Good and bad happen everywhere in the world.”
“We are statistically less safe in Chicago than the places we travel.”
“We aren’t going to live our lives in fear because of the brutal, horrible actions of a few people.”
While these answers usually suffice, they deserve a deeper discussion, and I’m thrilled to have this space to share my thoughts. I think this question, the assumptions behind it, and how it is answered are crucial to how we view the world and people other than ourselves.
When I answer, “Good and bad happen everywhere in the world” what I mean is from everything I’ve experienced with travel and life, people are people everywhere. The vast majority of what I’ve experienced while traveling is kindness beyond our typically accepted social norms. Something changed in my brain our first night in Rome when our waitress scooped Molly up and carried her out of sight into the kitchen to “introduce” her to the chef and kitchen crew. This was our first trip out of the country with a baby. It was probably the first time a stranger had held Molly. It was certainly the first time she had been taken away. Instead of feeling panicked and rushing to intervene, Jeff and I smiled and continued eating for the 60 seconds she was gone. It was beautiful. We got to experience warmth and genuine human interaction and the anxiety over needing to control every second of every interaction Molly has melted away. These interactions have become one of the things I cherish most about travel. Like the time Molly chatted with a wonderful, exclusively Spanish-speaking, older woman for an entire mass while sitting on her lap. Or the time our flight attendant picked up on the fact that Emma was sick of sitting with us and carried her to their prep room to give us all a break. Or the dozens of people who have played peek-a-boo through airplane seats and engaged Molly in lengthy conversation to pass the time during flights. Approaching the people we meet as people and assuming they are kind has so rarely disappointed that I can no longer fathom assuming everyone we meet is a potential threat. It would be exhausting, unproductive, and cause us to miss opportunities for us and our daughters to connect with kind, loving people.
When I answer, “We are statistically less safe in Chicago than the places we travel” what I mean is that we’re now aware of the false security that comes from familiar danger. While traveling in Mexico last summer, we heard warning after warning about corrupt officials and drug cartels and “Mexico just isn’t safe right now”. While we were there, we talked about how coming from the bubble of the United States, there is a danger of ignoring simple geography when discussing other places in the world. We were in Cancun, traveling a small amount around the Yucatan. Nowhere near drug cartels. Or as the kind, but rightfully annoyed, travel agent explained to a naive first-time traveller when we went to Jamaica years ago, “it would be as if you wouldn’t travel to Minnesota because of the violence in Chicago.” The second thing that struck us is how easily we accept our media’s version of events in other countries while we largely ignore threats within our own. The narrative our country gives of Mexico is that it’s a dangerous, lawless place run by drug cartels and corrupt officials. The narrative Mexico or any other country could give of the United States is that authorities who kill minorities are protected by the government and our law protects rapists as long as they have money and connections. Certainly I would not accept that narrative as a sweeping description of law enforcement or government in the United States. So why do I accept a similar narrative of places I’m not familiar with?
When I answer, “We aren’t going to live our lives in fear because the brutal, horrible actions of a few people” I mean just that. The state of the world is frightening. It’s frightening that any plane we board could be blown up. It’s frightening that our children could be abducted. These are terrifying realities, but with our privileged travel options they’re unlikely. A more terrifying reality is the extent to which fear and isolation are driving people apart, creating and escalating violence. We are privileged. We have a choice where our family lives and how we live. We can choose to never board a plane and pretend that if we stay close to home we’ll avoid danger. Besides the fallacy that safety comes from insulating ourselves and pushing others away, we would miss life. We would also be accepting and contributing to a culture that views our security as the primary, if not only, priority. And we refuse to do that. The other “state of the world” that isn’t as sensational and therefore largely ignored, is that it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Both its geography and its people. People everywhere live their daily lives. They work, study, raise families, make discoveries, challenge injustice, struggle, pray, mourn, find joy, and create community. Our ability to view these everyday occurrences outside of our comfort zone has tremendous impact on how we choose to live our lives. It challenges norms that we didn’t recognize as norms. It gives us the courage to make different choices than our societal defaults. It makes us challenge the dominant narrative. It makes us more empathetic people and gives us drive to build up rather than destroy and tear down. It is the greatest privilege and one that I would never trade.
I have been told that I am “relentlessly positive,” and it is the highest compliment I’ve received. I am stubborn in my positivity because if I choose to approach life as a gritty, frightening trial then the people I encounter will appear that way, and certainly there is enough “breaking news” to reinforce that mindset. If I approach life as a privilege and believe my responsibility as a human is to deeply appreciate and contribute to it, then the people I encounter provide endless opportunity for beauty and growth, and I am unable to ignore suffering and violence as a natural, acceptable part of life.
Perhaps the answer I should give is the most brilliant summary of the subject I’ve heard from Brandon Stanton at Humans of New York:
“And those are important stories. Those are the types of stories that expose corruption, stop genocide, and alert the world to emerging threats. It’s right for those stories to be told. But when those stories are all that we hear, it’s so easy to imagine a world that’s far scarier than it really is. You lose sight of the 99.99% of the world that’s not scary at all. And living in fear can be a dangerous thing. Because if we’re afraid of each other, we’ll never be able to work together to solve our common problems.”