Oct 11, 2010

The Danger Of Distance

My husband and I recently celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. I've been in Norway for eight years now. Hard to believe. It's gone by quickly. It's been challenging at times, but I've learned so much and I think that I've grown considerably. I've also changed a lot, although I think that I'm basically the same person I always was. But where I've changed most, I think, is that the older I've gotten and more aware of the world around me, the more I want to get involved. The more I want to bridge the distance between myself and the people and ideas that I don't understand. I've always been curious and fairly open-minded. But I've usually been an anxious, timid person. Though I still sometimes feel hindered by my lack of self-confidence and inhibitions, I do sometimes now find myself more willing to just "jump in" and get involved in things that I previously would have left up to someone else. And by doing so, I've learned some valuable lessons about how distance can be a hindrance to understanding and, thereby, compassion.

The danger of distance hit home to me more these past couple weeks in three different, totally unrelated forms.

Farm animals

As my regular readers know, I'm an avid animal welfare advocate and do my best to maintain and (hopefully) inspire others to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle -- or at the very least to cut down on meat consumption. There are a ton of reasons why vegetarianism is beneficial for people and the environment, but I won't get into those here because they're all secondary to the heart of the issue, in my opinion.

I read a detailed account of the life of a Norwegian veal calf named Tussi. The author followed him from his birth in a barn to when he was grazing in pastures, and then just under six months after his birth was loaded onto a truck and driven three hours to a slaughterhouse. There he was led through a narrow hall to where a bullet was shot into his skull, he was hung upside down, throat slit, drained for blood, and then cut into steak.

Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." Personally, I think this is a stretch because I know that there are some people out there who have no problem with witnessing or personally participating in animal slaughter. In some places of the world, poverty has made some people dependent on their animals for survival. It's totally natural to some people and something that they probably don't give much thought to. However, I think that many people are the type who would become vegetarian if they had to witness -- or personally participate in -- the slaughter of every single animal they consume. The first person who comes to mind is my Dad. I think that my compassion for animals is something I got from him. Dad is the type who, if he finds them inside, puts spiders in plastic bags and carries them outside. I know he would never use anything but a humane mousetrap. He drew the line when grub worms were eating up his lawn and he bought some pesticides, but he wouldn't even let us step on ants as kids. But as nice as we were to ants, we all ate meat pretty much daily. I know that both of my parents would have been disturbed to hear about -- let alone witness -- how our dinner got onto our plates. And yet we managed to consume animals day after day without really worrying about it. And this could only be maintained through distancing ourselves from the realities of all the chickens, cows and pigs that we ate over the years. If Mom and Dad had had to personally butcher all of the cows, I have no doubt that we would have all grown up vegetarian. Now, my intention is not to criticize, because I managed to maintain that distance myself for 28 years. And sometimes I still do, when really kind people whom I don't want to offend serve me something containing meat. But the distance is not what it once was and it will never be again.


In a totally unrelated incident, I had to say goodbye to a good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago. One of the several Afghan refugees that I've gotten close to these past few months, Ali is an approximately 19 year-old young man (most Afghans don't know their exact day or even year of birth because in a country of chaos and high illiteracy, births are not really registered) who got his final rejection from the Norwegian immigration authorities. He was ordered to leave Norway by a certain date or be sent to a detention centre until the authorities could put him on a plane to Kabul, which is not his home. Ali doesn't know where his family is. They were separated about ten years ago and the Red Cross was unable to track them down. According to Norwegian authorities, Ali was over 18 when he arrived in Norway two years ago, although even they admit that they can't say for sure that he isn't under 18 even now. Whereas a few years ago his case would have likely given him grounds to stay, the political situation has changed considerably recently. There is a strong anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe these days and Norway is no exception. So, Norway -- often referred to as "the world's richest country -- has no room for Ali. We "can't afford" him. We have "nothing" to offer him. It's "safe" enough for him to go back to Afghanistan, despite all the latest UN and NGO reports of an increase in violence and attacks on civilians -- particularly on ethnic minorities such as Ali, who is Hazara. Funny how we say it's "safe."

The last time I saw Ali, I was struck by how young he suddenly seemed to me. I thought of my own 19 year-old brother in Canada and tried to imagine him alone somewhere in some foreign country with no family, no money, no passport, no rights, and no place to call home. Even as I sit and type this, I still feel deeply impacted by my last image of Ali -- this incredibly bright and fun-loving young man who was nothing to Norway but another immigration case -- walking out the door to an incredibly uncertain future. Where is he now? Where will he be next week? Next month? Next year? In ten years?

I'd like to believe that there are few Norwegians who would have had the heart to send Ali out along his journey to nowhere if they knew him personally. If it were they who had to make the final decision. If it were up to them whether he were given the opportunity to continue his education, work, and have a life of stability in Norway where he had learned the language and had friends that had become like family to him; or whether he be left with the alternatives of returning to nothing in Afghanistan or being shuffled from one European country to another without any rights or protection.

But even though most people would probably agree that there is something wrong with what happened to Ali, they have a safe distance between themselves and "cases" like him. Even though the immigration authorities -- the "bad guys" -- were the ones who rejected him, we tend to forget that in a democracy like Norway, we are the immigration authorities. We are the "bad guys" for electing them into power and allowing them to implement their policies with little or no protest. Norwegians are great complainers. It's probably why they've probably built the greatest country in the world to live in. But there's not a lot of complaining going on for Ali and the thousands in his position. Why? Because of the distance we've managed to create between "us" and "them" -- even though we may literally be neighbours with "them." Norwegians, however, are not the only ones who distance themselves from other human beings. It was such distance that led to the dangerous dehumanization and subsequent genocide of the Hazara people by the Taliban and other groups in Ali's homeland. This, in turn, caused him and millions of others to have their lives ruined, families torn apart and scattered around the globe. Norwegians had nothing to do with those attrocities committed in Afghanistan. But does that clear us of any responsibility towards Ali?

I just finished reading the book Eyes In Gaza by Norwegian doctors Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, who were the only westerners present for much of the 22-day siege of Gaza in 2008-2009. If you remember watching CNN or BBC coverage of that event, you may remember their shocking reports of what they were witnessing as Gaza was being sealed up and cut off from the rest of the world. Although I realize that the Israel-Palestine conflict is far from one-sided, few have witnessed the scale and severity of the Palestinian suffering as these two doctors. The original book is in Norwegian, but I see that an English translation is available on Amazon here. I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to get a more nuanced view from the Palestinian side of the conflict.

In one of the book's chapters, Dr. Fosse writes:

"It suddenly occured to me how dangerous distance is, and how easy it is to distance oneself when the victims have a foreign religion or rhetoric. The labelling of Gaza's population as religious fanatics and terrorists made it so that people in the west didn't identify with them and their suffering. The terror label had created a distance between them and us. For ever day that the war continued, more children had their lives ruined. Either they lost their lives, arms and legs, or they lost their parents. They were all psychologically injured of the chaos they lived in. Every day with war did irreversible damage to everyone in Gaza. As children were killed and maimed, American and European politicians discussed details in the wording of a resolution. I felt nauseous."

How relevant is Fosse's view of the danger of distance in other areas of the societies in which we live? Is it applicable elsewhere?


The danger of distance came to mind again this past week as another gay Mormon took his own life and the media were buzzing over Boyd K. Packer's talk about homosexuality in General Conference. I don't wish to analyze and criticize his talk because that's been done many times before. But when I heard what he had to say, the subject of distance came to mind again. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that Elder Packer doesn't really have any gay friends. Once again, I could be wrong but I'm going to assume that he hasn't spent a lot of time with homosexuals, hearing their stories or associating with them. I'm guessing that he generally views them and their supporters as enemies of the Church. Of course, none of us can know for sure what is in his heart, but his choice of rhetoric on several occasions seems to support my theory.

Just this morning I read about New York gubernatorial hopeful Carl P. Paladino's comments about how children should not be "brainwashed" into thinking homosexuality was acceptable. "That's not how God created us," he said. And then he added, "I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t.”

The other side could claim that religious groups are engaging in brainwashing themselves. But really, who needs to be brainwashed? People can decide for themselves and pass judgment once they've personally bridged the distance. And perhaps it says something that those haven't had that distance between themselves and gays are the ones that generally seem to exhibit the most compassion and understanding. In the Mormon community, Carol Lynn Pearson comes to mind. Is there anyone who gets it better?

A friend of mine sent me a message this past week in which he wrote:

"I was raised in a very conservative, Republican, Mormon household with all of the subtle (and not so subtle) prejudiced attitudes against women, poor people, races and cultures different from our own, and, yes, against homosexuals. After all, "they" are not like "us," and, further, "they" are choosing to be different from "us." So, growing up, and even on my mission in the late Eighties, my view were very much what Boyd K. has expressed over the years.

As I have pursued my working career, I have formed too many friendships with gay and lesbian men and women. You know, so long as I was separate from "them," I did not have to take anything new in. Needless to say, over many years, and many conversations, and pondering, my programming has been updated."

I thought that his sentence, "so long as I was separate from "them," I did not have to take anything new in" hit the nail on the head. And it was very timely as the subject of distance had been on my mind lately.

On a relevant note, Marlin Jensen caused some waves of his own over his Prop 8 apology at a Church meeting in California. The way I see it, Packer and Jensen adhere to the same doctrine. Neither of them see a place for homosexuals in the Church who are not celibate. But Jensen's approach somehow seemed so much more palatable in this Salt Lake Tribune article where it was reported:

Jensen was the visiting general authority and offered to meet with members on the issue. About 90 people attended the meeting by invitation, and 13 shared their stories of pain as gays or family members, Pearson reported on her website. After one particularly harrowing account, many in the room, including Jensen, began to cry.

The speaker said he felt the church owed him an apology.

Jensen arose and said through his tears, according to Pearson, he had heard very clearly the pain that had been expressed and that “to the full extent of my capacity I say that I am sorry.”

Marriage as only between a man and a woman was a “bedrock of our doctrine and would not change,” Jensen told the group that day, nor would the policy requiring gays to remain celibate.

“However, I want you to know that as a result of being with you this morning, my aversion to homophobia has grown,” Jensen said. “I know that many very good people have been deeply hurt.”

Jensen’s heartfelt empathy was such a healing balm that day, said Andy Sorenson, bishop of the Moraga Ward, home to about half the participants. There was widespread sobbing.

“He said that we have to do better going forward as a Christian people in expressing Christ’s love and fostering our common bonds together,” Sorenson said Monday. “It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life."

Maybe he is starting to recognize the danger of distance.


Gay LDS Actor said...

Very nice post. Couldn't agree with you more. I think it's fear or ignorance of the unknown that often causes the distance you refer to. Education and exposure closes the gap and helps us understand things better.

Matthew said...

Too true. Distance, separation into us and them, is the exact opposite of unity, which is supposed to be our goal.

Great post - I think you have hit the nail right on the head.

Anonymous said...

Excellent enough to prick my conscience.


Polaris said...

Very very well-written. :) Extremely well-written actually. I'm with you on each point. Scary that Norway too is turning more anti-immigrant (as is Sweden). I always felt that distancing was a particular scandinavian trademark. In Canada I feel that people are more prone to want to be closer and understand, to some degree. Not so much concerning meat though...

Badgerdown said...

Thank you so much for this post. Extremely well writing and said so many things that I have been thinking for so long and haven't found a way to express without anger flowing back at me in waves. It is so easy to treat others without compassion when we think of them as 'others' and not 'us'. I thank my Father daily that he is able to see all of us as a part of him... and not a part of 'other'.