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Between a Rock and a Hard Place
May 1, 2017

The Biblical book of Exodus tells of being a stranger in a strange land. It has universal resonance. To fully grasp the experience of terra incognita, recall a time you entered a place you’d never before gone. Think back to the inner dialogue that ensued, because it is there, at the intersection of self-awareness and self-talk, that our attitudes, beliefs, and values are formed.  Do I have what it takes to get through this? Undoubtedly, we have often asked ourselves this.

One of my most memorable experiences occurred when I returned to finish my undergrad degree in my late forties. Navigating the language and requirements of the online enrollment process left me feeling powerless, frozen with the inability to comprehend what was expected of me. Without lines to get into, there was no friendly conversation that could help me bluff my way through. By the time I figured out the process, all that remained open for my science elective was one geology lecture course. Why had it not filled up?  Was it the course? The professor? Was I about to sign up for something everyone else was smart enough to walk away from? I know nothing about rocks, nor am I at all sure I want to!  

My fingers hovered above the Enter key; my self-conversation told me I was making a huge mistake. My already shaky confidence ebbed away with every second I hesitated.  My options were limited by my lack of understanding. I felt restrained by my inadequate knowledge of the unfamiliar terrain. Reality can be a frightening destination when its streets are paved with bewilderment, delusion, and fear.

Fortunately, mine was a short-lived panic. The first day of class, I entered an auditorium with 300-plus other students. Three cups of coffee floated in me, a futile attempt to drown my insecurities. I can always leave, I told myself. You cannot be arrested for dropping a course. 

At the front of the room was an instructor with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent, Liam Neeson’s face, and the manic wit and timing of Robin Williams. Within days, I was hooked. At the end of each class, he wished us all a “Gneiss Day.”  He amazed us with his familiarity with rocks. Rocks!  A glance at the syllabi informed us that we were there to learn why “Schist happens.” With his eccentric geological humor, terms like sediment, seepage, and seismicity quickly became part of our vernacular. At semester’s end, geology was the course I missed most.

I will always be appreciative that my fears were put to rest in such a surprising way. More surprising though was how fertile seeds of empathy were planted within me through this entire experience. It is very intimidating for someone nearing the half-century mark to enter a classroom filled with twenty-somethings. Turns out, I easily understood my younger colleagues: their music, dress, and angst mirrored those of my own three children. I bartered with them shamelessly. To teach them how to be more productive with their time, I shared my finely honed time management skills that years of disciplined focus on the job had taught me. In turn, I craved their easy familiarity with the keyboard and the library’s digital frontier. One relative quipped that I spent an inordinate amount of time in the college’s library. You bet I did! College libraries, those once-hallowed walls of study, now house coffee shops. From a private cubicle, I could quietly observe other students. This eventually boosted my confidence level enough to sign up for graduate school.

My old notebooks now serve as visual reminders: somewhere, at all times, someone is facing a challenge.

Nowhere is that challenge more acute than for immigrants and their new hosts. For immigrants, learning a new language, acquiring confidence in an alien culture, and stamping out constant anxiety in a new country has to be terrifying. For hosts, the anxiety also comes from assimilation. Regard us all with kindness. Offer all of us hope. Empathy is not overrated.

Who is an immigrant? No matter what gender, ethnicity, or age, an immigrant is a human being coming into a place that is not home. That life-changing movement unquestionably brings with it alarm, uncertainty, and an unnamed force that wants to strangle the hope from your tentative future.

For an immigrant, tangible fear is a pestilence, a common weed. It thrives in any environment, taking over like an invasive species. To survive, it can even assault its host because fear can easily manifest into anger. When watered with self-doubt, it assumes super powers. It has to be eradicated; it must be supplanted with something tougher.

Empathy is that tougher thing.  Empathy can attack fear’s root system. Empathy is the most valuable ally to offer someone who is running scared every minute of their life. Empathy asks us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. To empathize is a valuable journey for both host and immigrant.

Let’s return to the geology classroom for the applicable lessons from the study of plate tectonics. The metaphorical possibilities existing between this theory and immigration are limitless.  The term tectonics comes from the Greek, pertaining to building, which ideally is what immigration should do for individuals, communities, and countries. Host countries, the destination of refugees, migrants, or émigrés, will be in flux. How does one maintain or rebuild a healthy community when new arrivals place stress on its current capacity for change?  And any nation that gives up its citizens, whatever the reasons, has to rebuild with those who remain. The materials are now more scarce and less varied. Plate tectonics describes the motion of plates in the Earth’s lithosphere, which consists of the crust and mantle. The Earth’s crust is rigid and unyielding; its mantle more liquid and fluid.  Again, an easy rhetorical leap that parallels the ebb and flow of change that is associated with every aspect of immigration.

The concept of continental drift is rich with veins of rhetorical language waiting to be mined. If one subscribes to the theory of Pangaea, which assumes that our planet once consisted of a super-continent surrounded by a super-ocean, then you must accept that once we were one big homeland. Apparently, even our supposed solid ground has been shifting and drifting over epochs and eras.  Survival demands that one accepts the hypothesis that nothing remains static; staying still is a death sentence. Immigration can be similarly framed as a life-or-death choice. The geological language of upheaval, shattering, calving, accretion, permeability, and violent movement is migration writ large onto our personal landscapes.

Plate tectonics also asserts that there are three types of movement: Convergence, which is identified with collisions that produce volcanoes, earthquakes, and mountain ranges; divergence, which is characterized by plates that move away from one another, initially producing rifts that become valleys and form islands; and transform movements that neither create nor destroy, but are primarily horizontal movements producing slips in the opposite direction from what one expects. Einstein, it has been noted, asserted that “nothing happens until something moves.” Whether we initiate the movement, are moved upon, or are the product of ancestral movements, motion is obviously necessary, even if it’s earth-shattering.  A change is gonna come…sooner or later. No evidence exists to prove that Sam Cooke and Einstein “rocked” together. But I bet they would have.

Regardless of the type, any movement is disruptive. And whenever a person or family is forced to move, as one bids farewell to familiar places, expect confusion. Confusion is compounded by the inability to alter one’s circumstances. Take another step on that empathetic journey and imagine fearing the loss of everything you hold most dear. Fear of losing all you possess, fear of losing your loved ones, and fear of losing your life—all fears that cannot be simply prayed away.  Will we be separated? Will I find work?  Are the rumors true that the government there is just as bad, maybe worse? Will my children adjust? What will the norms and expectations be in this new place? What will happen if peculiar languages, odd traditions, and strange beliefs fly into the face of all we’ve been taught? Will we be welcomed, ignored, or even worse, persecuted further and confronted by different enemies?  As water wears down rock, the obstacles faced by immigrants and their hosts are unquestionably erosive. No one will ever be the same as before.

Imagine walking into a new job or marrying into a new family. That same strangeness is the immigrant’s new environment no matter what conditions brought them to it. How does one overcome the aftershocks so adaptation can occur? Can one potentially even thrive? Are some humans born with a peculiar strain of flint and granite in their makeup, or does steely determination take root only after acid rain-showers of abrasive words and policies wear a person down?  Time and pressure can reduce rocks to rubble or into valuable gemstones. What might similar forces do to the human spirit?  Do we converge with, diverge from, or traverse through the rifts brought about by changes in our habitats?  Do we descend into a valley of despondency or conquer the mountaintops?  Decisions await; action is demanded. Is there never any rest for the weary traveler? 

Disorientation also happens to those who find their secure, familiar worlds disrupted by the introduction of something new. Introduce strangers into a community and the status quo has been upset, the equilibrium disturbed. We are suddenly compelled to rethink old paradigms.  Will we move away from this new diversity that has invaded our space?  Will we form islands unto ourselves – or force “the others” to isolate themselves so as not to “infect” us?  Science has demonstrated that divergent cultures must adapt and adjust to survive. Otherwise, losses are inevitable, forever mourned and never forgotten. What if instead, we try sharing, allowing symbiosis to become the new normal? Might we then find ourselves celebrating this new thing that has bubbled up to replace the old?

Social scientists tell us that in the process of perception, we unconsciously make choices about incoming data. We select, organize, interpret, and negotiate the meaning of what we see, hear, and feel.  We filter our selections through our personal schemata, developed individually through life experiences and cultures, among other variables. Interestingly, it is narrative that obliges us to constantly “negotiate” our interpretations.  Telling, listening, and repeating stories is arguably a life-affirming aspect of immigration. Whether we are telling or listening, and whether we are immigrants, the progeny of immigrants, or native observers, we can all benefit from the stories we share and hear. What has more potential to move us than the poignant stories of those who have emigrated, or of the people who have received immigrants?  Think of the anger, hurt, wisdom, catharsis, and empathetic possibilities these narratives contain. 

What did you carry with you from the old country? 
That which a suitcase could not contain and thieves could not steal. Stories.

We repeat our immigration stories because they contain explosive power. Time cannot hold our myths hostage. Storylines are embedded in the DNA of every nomad who has ever yearned for a place to stop and rest: for a year, a decade, or a lifetime. How else to explain how we sanctify the places that house our hieroglyphics, cave drawings, covenants, literature, and poetry? Art imitates life; art helps us to traverse an unfamiliar landscape.

Assimilation, integration, xenophobia, employment, security, and education are the vocabulary words for these oft-repeated tales.  Seismic changes in culture force both immigrant and host to negotiate and re-negotiate their positions before reaching… what? Just as convergence causes volcanic activity and earthquakes, some results are catastrophic and the dangers ever-present. Mountains can also be formed.  Solid, dependable markers on the landscape, these mountains connote stability.

What will the end be? War, uneasy truces, or broken treaties which prevent others from putting down roots and calling a new place home? Or peace, acceptance, and assimilation, all arguably better ways to discover new boundaries? Why can’t we choose stories defined by courage, compassion, and fairness, instead of division?

Make no mistake: like geology, immigration will always be transformative, and it may very well emerge as either something to be embraced or annihilated. In a perfect world, that which eventually surfaces could be a valuable creation, an amalgam of cultures that incorporates, not destroys, the original.  Legitimate concerns can be the catalysts for positive change, taking us in directions we could not foresee. The best of all possible scenarios might be to accept immigration as a natural phenomenon, one which allows our curiosity about the other to seek out commonalities rather than highlight differences. When that which is unfamiliar is fused into something unexpected and new, might that not result in something worth keeping? Think Halloween meets Dias de los Muertos, tacos piled high with kimchee and Sriracha, or meditative mantras inserted into the Book of Common Prayer. When one reads about movements that bring together warring factions, now working cooperatively to bring about peace, other possibilities begin to appear on the horizon. For example, look at groups involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement. What was once deemed impossible has now become achievable because both parties realized that mutually assured destruction was not acceptable. Are movements the parents of human tectonic shifts, or the progeny?

This astonishing new thing that might form between immigrants and hosts could conceivably be that which propels us all on a positive path forward. Physics theory reveals that explosive energy comes from both fission and fusion. The first is a result of division; the latter requires a merger. Harnessing combined energy might be the best kind of transformative action to work towards if we are to solve many of our immigration issues. For some, at this moment, this is perhaps a bridge too far. But long term, to ensure our mutual survival, this could be our only salvation. When walls crumble, we are left with sediment, rubble and dust. This is no less true of the walls we’ve constructed in our minds than it is of walls made of stone. What forms next?

If you can stand one last geological reference, rejuvenation in a stream is generally the result of a process known as uplift. Its distinguishing feature is “a youthful topography on a landscape that was previously worn down to a base level.” That surely is the hope of immigrants everywhere: to arrive in a new place and to be uplifted with hope. Hope is necessary for the host countries as well, who should feel revived, rather than repulsed, by the changes immigration brings. For the sake of our planet, perhaps our next move should be a collective grasping at Dickinson’s “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” What a tectonic shift that would be, the Earth vibrating with the hope of all humanity uplifted together.