I spent a month in Israel and Palestine during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. I was working on a farm in Gush Etzion, helping to make it into a sort of community centre where both Israeli and Palestinian could come together to become personally acquainted and resolve their differences.
I got on the bus on my way back to my house in Jerusalem after a long day of hard labour in the hot sun, and I was so excited to see that there was an empty seat near the back. I collapsed into it and got comfortable, listening to my music and taking a big drink of water. It wasn’t until a half hour into my ride that I realized I’d been sitting the whole time with one M16 pointing into my lap and another M16 pointing at my head. I thought about how this same situation would have made me feel had I been in Canada, and I realized that if I ever saw a single rifle on a bus, I would get off of that bus immediately. However, rifles had become such a normal part of the scenery that, in a very short period of time, my understanding of what qualified as safe and acceptable had completely changed. Rockets exploding overhead or landing within earshot – events that any one of which would have been traumatic in a different context and commemorated on a yearly basis – came to warrant no more concern or precaution than would walking home alone at night in Toronto.
The parable of the frog in the pot of warming water might lead us to believe that the change must be gradual over an extended period of time, but in my experience there is no amount of shock or outrage that overwhelms a basic imperative to feel as physically and psychologically comfortable as possible. So I adjust, so that I can ignore, so that I can be comfortable. But what are the consequences of that impulse?
Struggling changes us; it might be the only condition that truly changes us. And while change is necessary and even inevitable, it will not necessarily be positive.
Struggling can change what we view as acceptable of others. Some, while they struggle, develop a hatred of particular groups; they take to blaming gay people or racialized people or women for their struggle. Meanwhile, the rest of us might become accepting of a higher degree of intolerance than we would have previously such that it no longer raises any alarm bells when the President of the United States calls for the persecution of a political opponent, or when a mainstream political party will embrace a candidate who believes that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress, or when the response to a mass shooting which takes the lives of 59 people is limited to a standard press release.
Secondarily, we must be cognizant of how the struggle changes what we view to be acceptable behaviour of ourselves. We might become cynical, violent, disassociated or self-righteous. We will find ways to justify ourselves in our behaviour, but the fact is that they are coping mechanisms that make us feel better about doing less real work.
Heartbreak can make us demand better or settle for worse. It can make us bitter and defensive or strong and honest.
Unemployment can make us desperate or it can inspire us to pursue a dream. It can make us angry and insecure or creative and adverturous.
Injustice can make us dismissive of others or remind us to listen. It can make us scared and mean or motivated and engaged.
Martin Luther King Jr. tells us that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I believe, however, that in order for that to be true, we must: (1) pay attention to how we are changing, (2) we must be willing to remain sufficiently uncomfortable that we are motivated to put in the work to change for the better, and (3) we must make decisions about who we want to be and be disciplined with our own behaviour.
Posted in: Progress