The argument exists that we’re all emotional refugees

My mother is a first-generation immigrant to the United States. I’ve listened with amusement to her stories of trying to figure out how a “house burned up” and “burned down” depending on who told the story. The complete list of American colloquialisms that frustrated her in her first few years is MUCH longer by the way. Her telling of the foreign practices, phrases, games, and the fact that what she had grown up with to that point was nearly invalidated with the new geography. Now, she obviously got the hang of it because she went on to develop a biting, I mean succinct, sense of humor, married, had a terrific son and an, eh, daughter, taught school, was a principal…and on and on and on.

Her experience always provided a unique perspective for me because it really ended up being the canvas on which any empathy I had was painted. “What if I was in their shoes?’ What would “normal” look like and how far away from that do they find themselves now? Just in our recent history, I’m watching refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine being transplanted somewhere between the country next door to the opposite side of the globe. I wonder, along with wondering where your family’s next meal is coming from, what other aspects is their whole acclimation affected by? As simple as being invited to a “futbol” game only to wonder what the strange, brown egg players keep using their hands with to evaluating the diet choices their new neighbors make.

With all of this as a background, I’ve taken some interest in how people, including myself, respond to certain events. Death of a loved one or actually watching the team you root for that was expected to do nothing again this year go on to have a deep run in the playoffs. Watching somebody that struggles in school finally get their diploma to watching the most gut-wrenching images of children marred by war. All of these things, theoretically, evoke some emotion in us, right? What if those don’t? What if you look around and people are anywhere from getting watery eyes to bawling their eyes out and you feel…well…at best, disconnected? Are you somehow defective? Are you unable to feel for other people? I would posit no.

Just like the more traditional refugees that we think of as herded through refugee camps or border crossings, I think there is space for “emotional refugees.” Refugees are flailing themselves into the unknown (new country, new customs, new culture) because they are at the point that what they are leaving behind cannot be better than what they don’t know or understand yet. What if, for those of us that feel (and sometimes told) that we are cold, unfeeling, or callous, we are keeping ourselves moving forward (or at least, away) from where we know it’s not good for us? I’m not advocating that it’s necessarily good mental hygiene, I’m just saying it’s something we’re not able/ready to unpack in our own consciousness. In the course of my work I’ve seen abuse victims (and yes, some children), dead bodies, people that have lost everything to a house fire and family no closer than 10 hours away, and people who couldn’t leave alcohol/drugs/pills alone despite knowing it was nothing but pain and suffering for doing such and I’ve had to create a disconnect in order to do the job. What if that accidentally became permanent? What if that protection mechanism was now my default? Would that make me cold and uncaring? I would argue you don’t have to battle the same battles as I do.

How does that not translate to our emotional (and dare I say spiritual) health? We’ve been in environments that somebody just makes our blood boil. Oftentimes they may share our last names, and we “check out” just so we don’t commit a felony. I say that only partially in jest because there are people that were told their whole lives to “stand up for yourself” and promptly not taught what that means. Standing up for yourself could be lodging a lawsuit to give a state the right to uphold its own constitution. It could be taking verbal abuse for a while and finally not turning the other cheek and say, “Now, listen here…” In the most extreme misinterpretations, somebody picks up a gun and tries to eliminate whatever or whoever is challenging them.

Whatever the response is, we were taught that. Either by commission or omission, we learned that behavior. Are we fleeing our “emotional origin” and flailing ourselves to “anything’s better than back there.” One might say an emotional refugee. Or, are we taking time to unpack the 40 years of emotional baggage that we’ve been jamming into our Pinto and now we’re trying to find room for people to ride with us? I’ve about decided that with 8 billion of us on this planet, there’s a good chance somebody else’s standard operating procedure isn’t going to look that “standard” to about 7.9 billion of us.If we’re not going to lend a hand, either because we genuinely don’t know how or just can’t relate, to seeing them through the emotional refugee camp, maybe there’s room for the possibility that they see us just as much a foreign refugee as much as we see them.

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