I often unexpectedly get upset when I’m around my nieces. I’ll be sitting there with 2 and 1/2 year old Maren and 1 year old Jane, who will be doing normal things for toddlers or babies, respectively, and suddenly, a feeling of intense sadness will rise through me. Sometimes they will be crying about something, or trying to walk or do some other task that is beyond their abilities, or just looking around at the big world in front of them.

My mother and sister have both inquired as to the cause of these incidents of sadness. Their first guess is usually that I’m just a big emotional guy who is unable to handle how strongly I feel certain things. This is certainly true in some respects. Another good guess is that, when Maren or Jane is crying, I empathize with them and feel their sense of discomfort, fear, or unhappiness. Far from wanting to shush them, I want to join them. There might be truth to this too.

The third guess has been that I miss my own early childhood, when things were simple, when I played with toys (many of which my nieces play with now), when my family was still all alive and together. A bunch of years ago, this might have been the reason, but I don’t think it really is now.

At different points, I’ve realized what it is, and only this Thanksgiving have I been able to put it into words. I cry because I’m afraid for them, for the world they’ve been born into, for all the fears and miseries and losses of life that they have yet to experience. All I want is a safe world for everyone, where there is no suffering or exploitation, where alienation and self-sacrifice aren’t necessary, where dreams can be fulfilled instead of deferred, where there is no violence against women, or racism, or imperialist war.

Instead, the world they’re being brought up in is rife with all of these things in every direction, sad and angry people with no outlets, no true representatives, no hopes based on anything material, just on some vague quasi-nationalist American exceptionalism that we are all fed from the cradle to the grave, that America is somehow where the good guys win, where justice prevails, that “it can’t happen here” despite our horrific past of imperialist and racist violence and while a literal Nazi party (the “alt-right”) gains prominence. There is no truth to any of these lies.

Every good that has ever been achieved was done in spite of American society and systems of governance, not because of them. And all of them were accomplished by people, striving to making a difference. Not by hope.

That’s what runs through my head and heart when I see Maren and Jane just being little kids without a care in the world. On Thanksgiving, I suppose the feelings were extra prominent seeing as it’s the most hypocritical American holiday. Most holidays feel that way for me, to be honest, but Thanksgiving’s own hypocrisy appeared especially stark this year in light of what’s happening at Standing Rock, North Dakota. America is repeating history in a small but extremely significant way. The Native peoples “we” supposedly joined hands with at a long table a few hundred years ago have been fucked over in the most vile ways imaginable from then until now and that fuckery is continuing to this day.

Someday, someone is going to have to explain to those two young girls what America is, what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Then, they will be told that there is a plague of unhappiness in this country caused by our inability to choose, on an absolute level, what we do with our lives. Instead of playing like we do as children, learning and discovering, we have to choose one thing to do for 10 hours a day, 5 or more days a week, for the next 45 years. We have to grow emotionally and physically crumpled and overburdened by the insane level of obligations placed on us, to meet expectations, to make other people happy, to appear a certain way to others. We have to watch our friendships end, our loved ones die, our true hopes and dreams pass us by, replaced by other people’s or society’s, as there is just never enough time to choose and act.

And throughout all of this, in our sick society there is the constant threat of violence. Our very way of life is dependent on destroying other nations and oppressing groups of people. For folks who look similar to me, well, we’ll probably be fine unless we join law enforcement or enlist in the military, where we have the guns. For everyone else—women, people of color, LGBT community members—violence is always a possibility. As long as one group of people cannot live freely, no one can. Moral obliviousness, willful or imposed, is a form of human bondage.

And at the end of our bonded lives, no matter what we do, no matter how much we stress about it, what exercise routines we take on, pills we swallow, or vices from which we abstain, we grow old and infirm, bitter and regretful, and die alone. The rest of the world goes on without us, having never really known us, never really needing us.

Of course I would never unload these feelings onto my nieces, pretty much at any age. I am going to tell them, however, that the world depends on them, to do something other than what everyone before them did, to fight for something greater, to change the face of reality rather than bowing before it like everyone else does, and as I sometimes see myself doing, not because “everyone else” are bad people but because no one told them to, and they didn’t realize the need until it was too late.

Maybe it is impossible to get a young person to avoid certain mistakes by being warned about them; maybe children need to learn on their own. At least that’s what people say. Maybe that’s what they tell themselves to justify not telling their children the truth about certain things. I really don’t know. But what I do know is that I must try. That is a lesson I learned early enough in life. The more things you try, the fewer regrets in life you will have.

At least I will be warning them about the dangers of NOT acting, of NOT doing something that’s important to them, rather than trying to keep them from doing things. I only hope it is enough to get them to see the truth: it is not that they, as human children, are inherently special, nor is it that America or humanity is somehow special either. It is not one or the other. It is neither or both. Either special human beings who want a special world, a world worth saving, will take action to change it, or they won’t. They will remain ordinary people who want an ordinary world, and everything will remain as it is: unjust, unremarkable, and unfulfilled.

I cry because I want my nieces to be special, but also safe and happy. Perhaps they will help create a world in which they, or their children if they have them, don’t have to choose. That is my hope.

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