Immigration is a hot topic, and it should be. The world is fracturing along formerly unpredictable lines, and refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants are finding ways to enter Europe and the United States previously unheard of. From a humanitarian point of view many if not most of these immigrants deserve refuge. It is hard to imagine what life must be like for a Syrian family living through a civil war, or a citizen of Libya or Somalia where no government exists to protect or care for them. It is easy to empathize with Salvadorans and Hondurans who head for El Norte because their countries remain trapped in cycles of mismanagement, venal governments, lawlessness and disease.
The solution of course is far from simple. If the United States opened its doors to all, it would be flooded. A recent mining of Google searches in Iran showed that even there where America is considered the devil incarnate, the most visited sites are those which advise on how to emigrate to the United States. Most of the world lives under dictatorship, authoritarian rule, poverty, and corrupt governance. Of course most people would choose to leave if they could.
The various aspects of the debate are well known – the economic cost-benefit of open borders; the erosion or refreshing of cultural values; etc. – and immigration is certainly the most contentious issue of the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Xenophobia is well-understood. Human nature has always been territorial, self-interested and self-protective; and ethnic groups, geographical regions, nations, and empires have all been based on consolidating homogeneous populations and increasing their power and influence. The ‘Other’ is an understandable, hardwired threat to such settled homogeneity; and despite those who insist that Man is perfectible, and society can emerge from its current antagonistic era into a more harmonious and tolerant one, we remain at odds.
Such isolationism, however, is not only a product of genetically programmed survival instincts and the vagaries of environmental resources. It is more fundamentally related to a fear of being alone.
A close friend of mine had lived in Greenwood Park for almost forty years. “I will die in this house”, he said; but far from any morbid sentiment, it was an expression of his very settled and emotionally comfortable life. The neighborhood, the larger community and its schools, police station, parks, playgrounds, and cross streets were his ‘womb’. Life was too unpredictable, the future too unknowable, and life after death too uncertain for him to deliberately upset his familiar and comforting world.
As he got older, he became more nervous about change. As soon as he opened his eyes in the morning he thought about the fence the neighbors were putting up, the new sidewalks on Pennyfield Place, the closure of the A&P, and the increased traffic on Mayfield Avenue, all of which were encroaching on his well-preserved emotional enclave.
To most people such changes were no more than minor irritants and if anything a sign of the economic growth of the area. Home prices were rising, cultural and social amenities increasing, and life was easier if not better than ever before.
Yet John Peters didn’t see it that way. Everything familiar in his life was a buffer and kept out the unwanted, annoying, and intrusive. As he grew older his sense of aloneness became more and more acute. “We are born alone and we die alone”, he said, “and the middle doesn’t count.” He was never one to engage with others within the lines. He had no personal interest in anyone in his neighborhood, but relied on them to remain the same. It was only Susie Barnes who picked up her newspapers in bathrobe and mules at 5:30; Henry Hankins who puttered in the garden on Saturday morning; Fairly Axum who parked exactly under the shade of the maple tree; and Betty Eggers who always greeted Paco, the Mailman. It was Grover’s Corners.
While his world remained ordered and peaceful, Peters could read, write, and think without distraction. It was actually less a matter of intrusion and more a sense of extended calm. He had the sense that he lived in the middle of a pond which was always still. Breezes were always diffused by the thickly-wooded slopes around it. Snow fell perfectly horizontally and quietly.
After years of a particular intellectual curiosity – why things were the way they were – he in his later years was only been interested in what they meant. Everything he read had personal relevance. Was the moment of everyone’s death as epiphanic as it was for Ivan Ilyich? Was life as ironic as Konstantin Levin thought? Was it true that we are created with intelligence, wit, creativity, and passion; live a few decades, and then cruelly spend eternity in the cold, hard ground? Was Ivan right in challenging the returned Christ for having deceived Man with empty promises of salvation while refusing to provide him bread?
John Peters’ intellectual world was as circumscribed as his neighborhood. He wanted no extraneous ideas disturbing the construction of his final understanding. He wanted nothing odd, nothing unusual, nothing foreign. He kept his pursuit pure, homogeneous, and perfectly attuned to his needs.
Everyone at one time or another realizes that we all are unknowable. Because each of us has our closed inner rooms, so does everyone else. There will always be a personal core that most defines us; and however we may appear to others; or even however we imagine ourselves; everything but the contents of those rooms is irrelevant. Looks, demeanor, attitude, posture are all constructs either deliberately affected or composed by our genetic preferences. They are incidental.
If personality, character, even being resides in this unknowable region, then we are truly alone. Our desire for family and community are to provide the same metaphysical buffer zone that John Peters constructed for himself. So it is no wonder that we want to keep strange people out.
“Life outside”, Peters said, “is like an amusement park. I like the roller coaster and the merry-go-round. It’s fun to eat cotton candy, caramel corn, and ice cream. I especially like to go at night when the Ferris wheel is all lit up and the sparks from the bumper cars light up the cow pasture. People are all having fun and so am I; but there’s no place like home.”