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Let's Talk About Syria
By Christine Stoddard
Shakespeare's “Sonnet LX” reminds us that there's finality to everything: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore, so do our minutes, hasten to their end.” You just saw your Labor Day weekend come and go, after all. Summer no more. Hotdogs and white pants, begone. Even twerking will eventually fade away, Kansas-style, “dust in the wind,” kaput. But all this talk of Syria should not end—at least not yet—because the matter is not over. As tempting as it may be to remember this as the summer of Daft Punk singles on the radio, push the social history out of your mind for sec. There's some political history in the making right now and one day your grandbabies might ask about it. Grandbabies or no grandbabies, all of us have a responsibility as global citizens to sit up straight and pay attention.
Reading The Washington Posts's “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” today reminded me of how easy it is to coast through the day with little to no reflection. Or maybe reflection isn't a problem, but perhaps reflecting on things outside of your immediate reality is. Bank accounts, phone bills, broken appliances, cat vomit on the carpet, whatever. People have always worried about minutiae and today I felt like just another frazzled human being in the history of mankind. I nicked myself pretty badly while shaving; the air-conditioning in the coffeehouse where I had lunch broke; I begrudgingly filled out a stack of researcher's permissions at the library. It wasn't until I headed home at long last that I took a nanosecond to wonder about the world outside of my ever-growing to-do list.
Anyone who took high school or freshman psychology probably recalls Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First, we must fulfill our physiological needs, like grabbing grub or signing that darn lease, before we can mentally move on to concerns like safety, like putting locks on the doors of your ugly new apartment. After safety, we think about love and belonging: finding a “bestie,” online dating, wedding drama, blah, blah, blah. After love and belonging, we fret over our self-esteem, e.g., Am I [fill in the blank] enough? Once we've nailed down some sense of self-respect, we can focus on self-actualization.
Self-actualization is the stage where we concentrate on developing ourselves, but that doesn't have to be such a literal endeavor. Developing yourself should involve engaging with your community—locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally to differing degrees, depending on your obligations and priorities. But not engaging on any level with all of these communities is selfish. At the very least, we should all be aware of what's going on in the world. If you don't mind being selfish, consider this: Can you really be your happiest, most creative, most productive self if all you ever do is gaze at your own navel?
In middle class America, your physiological needs should be met no problem. That's the privilege of being born to the “right” parents in the “right” country at the “right” time. Usually the same goes for feeling stable and secure. It's those next three levels on the pyramid that are harder to achieve. When your homeland is ravaged by civil war and has been for two years, your concerns are much more primal. Who cares about “Blurred Lines” when your children are starving or your house is a pile of rubble? You'd have to be insane to think about signing up for yoga class when rebel groups are kidnapping, raping, and otherwise torturing your neighbors.
I still remember exactly where I was as a 7th grader when I learned about the September 11th terrorist attacks. I had arrived to my history class early, where I stumbled in on my teacher watching the news. I stood, dumbfounded, eyes glued to the screen, as I processed the image of the Twin Towers collapsing. It took a moment for my teacher to realize that I was there, but when he did, he lunged for the remote control and turned off the TV. When I asked what was happening, he told me that my parents would explain. Though I wasn't satisfied with the answer, my teacher refused to say anything more and instructed me not to mention it during class. I did as I was told. My next period was an early lunch. There, I innocently watched my friends play poker until I overheard a girl talk about Japanese spies bombing New York. I ignored her and shifted my mind to what I was eating, my homework, the boy I liked, a joke someone made during the card game. I only vaguely grasped why we were not allowed to play outside that day. My mind was not on the Pentagon seven miles away from my middle school.
That was twelve years ago. I am no longer a child. If that were me in my 7th grade history class today, I wouldn't shut up until my teacher explained what was making the news. It's my duty to care about something other than the spread on my sandwich because I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can think grander than that. I have food. Moving on.
This morning, right after I thought about what I'd have for breakfast, I realized that the children I taught in AmeriCorps two years ago would be starting third grade today. It was the first day of school.
At first, I cried because I wasn't going to be there to hug them or give them high-fives. Then I cried for the ones I knew were excited to return to school because they wanted to learn. I cried for the ones I knew were excited because at school they would get at least two meals a day, plus a snack—which was more than they could expect at home over the summer. I cried for the ones I knew would benefit from classroom instruction. That thought reminded me of what works in the American school system. But I also cried for the children who were too academically gifted or too academically behind to be helped by an urban schoolteacher stretched too thin.
When I stopped crying, I collected myself over the sight of my chocolate chip cookie, only to remember that there's a civil war in Syria. Yet even those waves lap a pebbled shore, getting smaller and smaller and smaller until one day they will disappear. I just can't pretend they've disappeared before their time.
Christine Stoddard is the editor of QuailBellMagazine.com.