There have been times, in my travels, when I’ve found myself in unsettling situations. I’ve written about having a knife pulled on me while walking in Lima, Peru. A few people know that I got roughed up in New York City once, but I was young, naïve, stupid really, and escaped with no more than a couple of bruises. There may have been one or two other tense situations more recently, but neither my 90-year-old mother, nor my partner, need know about them. They worry enough when I’m halfway around the world by myself.
My travels the past few months, however, have left me unsettled. But it’s a different kind of unsettled than finding myself in trouble in Lima or New York. It’s not because anything bad has happened or because I’ve ever felt unsafe, either on the trains or in any of the towns along the tracks where I’ve stayed. It’s deeper than that.
I’m unsettled to my core. I’m unsettled in my head, and in my gut and in my heart. I’m unsettled, not because of the things I’ve seen – I’m accustomed to unsettling sites. I’m unsettled because of some of the people I’ve met and some of the conversations I’ve had.
My closest friends know that I have a cynical side and a dark sense of humor. Kiddingly (at least I think they were kidding), new acquaintances have said to me, “I thought you were a nice guy until I got to know you.” Despite my cynicism and my dark side, or maybe because of those survival instincts, I am unwaveringly optimistic. That is, until recently. It is a new sense of hopelessness (hopefully a temporary sense of hopelessness) that has me unsettled.
We all have different opinions, beliefs and worldviews and that’s what makes life interesting. It seems, however, that globally the gulf that divides humanity is getting wider and wider and we are less willing to entertain opinions, beliefs and views that differ from our own. Perhaps it has always been so and I’ve lived in a bubble, surrounded and supported by like-minded people. But it’s not like my bubble is just being burst for the first time. That happened decades ago when I saw how cruel the world could be towards people with HIV/AIDS.
No, something seems different now. Too many people, too often, worldwide, seem to need – and find – scapegoats for the world’s ills. The vile things that come out of people’s mouths have, lately, left me stunned. And weary.
I met a white man who believes that AIDS is the best thing to happen to Africa because it’s “killing off the blacks.”
I have met more than one Muslim who believes the United States orchestrated the 9-11 attacks to start an intentional war against Islam.
I have heard the most offensive words used to describe blacks and Jews.
I have had a Jewish woman tell me that she couldn’t have “those people” (blacks) in her home.
I have had a man tell me that women need to remember that their “place” is taking care of their husbands.
I have lost count of the people who have made derogatory comments about gays and lesbians, and that’s mild compared to what they say about transgendered people.
I have seen Christians, Muslims and Jews exhibit extraordinary hypocrisy.
I have seen a storeowner chase an emaciated, glue-addicted, homeless, eight-year-old boy from his shop because the orphan was begging for bread.
I am in South Africa now and these incidents have happened here, but in no way is this meant as an indictment of South Africa. It happens in the United States and in every corner of the world. My point, and this is why I’m feeling hopeless, is that racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism and an across the board, fill-in-the-blank, kind of anti-everything but a me-and-mine sentiment, appears to be universal. I can handle poverty and hunger and sickness because those are issues with solutions. I can’t handle man’s inhumanity to man because I don’t know how we even begin to change that.
Clearly my unwavering optimism has wavered.
I’m certain it will return because it isn’t in my nature to give up. I don’t believe it is in human nature to give up, either. But sometimes an optimistic needs to get so low that there is no way but up. It’s not a good process to go through, nor is it entirely bad. It is, however, unsettling.