When I was a kid, my grandpa used to tell me how lucky I was that my generation in the Western world has only ever known peace. Both World Wars had come and gone, countries had been rebuilt, the economy had recovered, and divisive thinking had been replaced with a newfound appreciation for the importance of sticking together, no matter your background or religion. I knew he was right because when he was a young soldier fighting in the war, a piece of a ricocheting bullet got lodged just above his eyelid. You could still feel it there, which made him a total badass in my eyes.
But those untroubled times he was talking about now seem like a distant reverie. Britain no longer believes in the merits of the EU, Donald Trump is building walls – both metaphorically and physically – and, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks across the globe, countries are fortifying their borders. Utopian notions of togetherness have been brushed aside in favor of the classic, cracker-barrel concept of us vs. them.
“This is our country,” they cry. “That, over there, is your country. Go back to your country.”
As everyone scrambles to defend their land, their morals, and their religion, people have lost sight of the most basic of truths: each one of us is an amalgam, our DNA composed of countless molecules, each one only a sentence in the chronicle of who we are when we enter this world. Think of how many people came before you, had to exist so you might also one day. No one person is one thing; we only are because of others, as a result of a unique marriage of genetics, cultures, language, and butt load of serendipity.
I was born in Lebanon during the civil war in the 80s. I don’t know much about my biological parents, but I’ve been told money played a role in their decision to give me up for adoption. My parents, who were stationed in Beirut at the time, were looking to adopt a baby, and as the result of a million lucky coincidences, our paths should cross. I don’t know what my life would have looked like if they wouldn’t have stumbled across the hospital I happened to be born in; or if they had never met in college a few years earlier; or if they had never felt the urge to explore new countries together. What I do know is that things would have turned out very differently for me. Not because I did anything to make this happen, but because of happenstance. People tend to forget this.
The United States run on the credo of the “Self-made man”, from dishwasher to millionaire – it permeates every fiber of cultural consciousness. This idea that you can be whatever you want to be – an astronaut, a rapper, president – with just the right amount of elbow grease is the reigning mantra. You grew up in the ghetto? No matter. If you want it enough, you’ll eventually end up on Park Avenue with a vacation home in the Hamptons. It’s right there, waiting for you. All you have to do is reach out and grab it. What, you haven’t made it yet? You must be lacking the necessary stamina.
Some people believe in this tenet so strongly that they forget that no one gets to where they are without a generous helping of fortuitousness. Some of us undoubtedly work harder than others, some of us are more successful than others, and part of that success, indisputably, is rooted in blood, sweat, and tears. But there’s this whole other part that people ignore because it doesn’t sound as sexy on the back cover of their autobiographies. I’m talking about the part made up of external factors: mentors who push us when we need it the most, timing, and – most importantly – dumb luck.
Because I was at the right place at the right time, I now get to enjoy a so-called “privileged Western life”. I work hard, sure, but I was afforded the opportunity to receive the education I needed to succeed, to be allowed to stumble and fall on my face, and to always have someone pick me back up, dust me off, and encourage me to try again.
Some people aren’t so lucky. Their lives are marked by war or poverty or any other number of obstacles because the hand they were dealt just happens to suck. As we enter another undoubtedly turbulent year, let’s not let fear cloud our judgment; let’s resist the urge to label those who are different from us as weird, weak, or sinister. Let’s listen to people’s stories – really listen – instead of relying on mental shortcuts, such as race, religion or gender.
The term sonder refers to the realization that every passerby – the angry guy on the subway, the barista brewing your coffee, the girl who just smiled at you – is living a life just as complex and detailed as yours. Take a moment to let this realization wash over you. Smile back.