It is difficult to find yourself in the position of going against a system and succeed and still have enough energy to be able to look back and acknowledge all the things that the fight took from you. When you can successfully fight your way through any system the fight can harden you, make you insensitive.
For a while now I’ve been able to analyze just how much of my success is due to luck. All the tools I’ve used to succeed, however inherent they may seem to my own person, none of those would have been able to come to the surface without a number of people pointing me in the right direction. People of all races, religious denominations and political leanings. People that I’ve met through random chance encounters and blind luck. The fantasy that anyone can be truly self-made is precisely that, a fantasy.
The idea that I “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” has never been a rational description of how I was able to rise above my circumstances. It did not happen that way. It was easy for me to believe that for some time though, after all achieving a certain level of success despite coming to this country at the age of 14, not knowing a word of English and having no college degree or any kind of certification made me believe that I was somehow better equipped to go against life than most. My general attitude was “Look at me, I made it. Why can’t you?” But the world is so much more complex than that. Humans are far more complex than that.
The truth is I didn’t want to look back at the true cost, the emotional and mental toll, of achievement and success given my less than ideal starting point. It was easier to tell other people in my same situation that if they can’t get ahead in life it’s their fault. That way I wouldn’t have admit to anyone, especially to myself, that I was absolutely terrified the whole time. That I was so stressed that I suffered from insomnia and paranoia for years. That behind closed doors I would fall apart with severe alcohol abuse, enough to leave me with permanent damage to my nervous system from constant alcohol withdrawals.
I didn’t want to think about any of this. So it was easier for me to deny someone else’s difficulties and obstacles. If I, for just an instant, agreed to see their human limitations I’d have to inevitably look at my own. If I, for a split second, listened to people tell me about the things that tore them apart and sympathize I might have to look at my own experience with that. I wasn’t ready.
The stress and anxiety of simply having to come up with the coping mechanisms to function outside of my cultural bubble was enough to drive me crazy. I still carry some of that in me. It’s hard to completely let go of the tool that allowed me to survive for so long.
I’ve learned something incredibly valuable in the last few years: I don’t get to tell people how to deal with their generational trauma. How can I? Knowing full well that in doing so I almost destroyed myself.
It was hard and infuriating when I read for the first time the accounts of what Europeans did to the native people of this continent. How they grabbed native babies by their feet and smashed them against the rocks or how they would throw them up in the air and try to chop them in half with a single swing of their swords. They would even turn that into a game and make bets.
Upon the discovery of gold and silver mines the native people of Mexico and Central America, at least those who didn’t die of disease, were forced to work those mines under incredibly inhuman conditions. Such was the brutality of the work and the European’s thirst for riches that native people started killing their own children, to spare them from a lifetime of servitude in the mines, and then engage in mass suicides.
Europeans would later declare to authorities in Spain that the Indians were so lazy that they would rather kill themselves than work. Meanwhile the Pope and his theologians came to the conclusion that Indians of the New World did not possess a soul therefore their treatment was entirely justified. This all happened before the first African slave set foot on this continent and when that happened they too would die en masse. First during transport and those who survived would also meet their end in those mines.
For a 17 year old trying to make sense of the world and his situation, to be presented with this information at a time when he is just looking for reasons to hate the world, it can be dangerous. It has the power to submerge you in a sea of resentment and destructive behaviors.
I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that this historical transgressions were the reason my parents grew up in shacks made of sticks and mud. That maybe that was the reason why I had to work in rodeos back home and be exposed to people I shouldn’t have been around, to things that I shouldn’t have seen, to see for myself how fragile human life can be at an age when I didn’t even understand what death means.
Maybe that was the reason I had to leave my home, my friends and everything I knew and come to a place I didn’t understand to live in a 2 bedroom apartment with 12 people. Maybe this explains my family’s history of alcoholism. Maybe the oppression of my ancestors hasn’t really stopped. Maybe it’s still happening.
Maybe it’s the way that person just looked at me.
Was that a racist comment?
Was that supposed to be a joke?
Are they laughing at me?
Did they just change seats because of me?
Why are they staring at me?
It’s enough to drive anybody crazy and yet I wouldn’t change anything, after all, it’s my life and I have to own it and nobody can take on that responsibility for me. But I can’t expect people to just know how to do that. I can’t expect people to know how to rise above that, no one is teaching us how. Most of these lessons I had to learn by myself.
I believe that what makes people so susceptible to ideological rigidity is an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and resentment as a result of the terrible injustices and violence perpetrated against them presently or historically. A cycle that has permeated every civilization throughout history.
It was mind blowing, to me at least, to learn that the roots of inequality stretch all the way back to the time of our human ancestors in the Neolithic age. It’s hard to think that modern social inequality didn’t start with the raise of European Imperialism and colonialism but with the beginning of agricultural societies almost 23,000 years ago. The patterns of state formation have been exactly the same since then.
If you can be honest for a minute and see just how hard it is to change even the smallest character defects in yourself then it’s no wonder how for us as a species the monumental task of reinventing the very fabric of our reality has been a gruesome, chaotic and violent event.
I hope we figure out a better way.