big ideas, OPW, world

OPW: Finding Commonality Inside Iraq

Earlier this week I encountered a pretty interesting piece in the New York Review of Books. Entitled “As Iraqis See It,” the piece gives an inside look into the lives of Iraqis working for the McClatchy news organization, one of America’s biggest. McClatchy provides these reporters with a blog, called Inside Iraq, which is where most of the stories in the piece originate. One of the most striking passages was this:

While courteous, the men look right through her. One of the Americans begins searching the living room. In it is a large bookcase filled with books in English. “You read a lot Ma’am?” he asks. “Yes, in fact I do,” she replies, using English for the first time. “What’s this?” he says. “Heinlein? Asimov? Grisham?”

He turns to look at me again, this time with a different expression in his eyes. “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes, of course. It’s in that cabinet.”

He opens the cabinet and looks closely inside.

“You play Diablo?! And what’s this?! Grand Theft Auto??” He forgets all about the weapon and turns to us with a wide grin on his face, and astonishment in his eyes. My son asks him, “Is ours the first house you search?”, “No, why?”, “Because all my friends have these games, why are you so surprised?” The serviceman looks embarrassed, and turns to inspect the weapon.

They went through every room, every cabinet, closet and drawer silently. After they accomplished their mission, in about thirty minutes, they walked out, gray shadows in the twilight.

With its quiet exploration of the subtle interplay between occupier and occupied, the vignette reminded me of Orwell’s writings about his imperial service in Burma. Interested in learning more, I reached Sahar via phone at McClatchy’s Baghdad office. She told me that when the American soldier discovered Grisham and Asimov on her bookshelf, “He was totally amazed. When he looked at me, he didn’t see an Iraqi woman in a hijab, he saw a human being. You can’t imagine the look on his face—there were tears in his eyes. He was inside a house, with love, a family, like anywhere else.”

The incident, Sahar said, gave her a sense of the extent to which the Iraqi people are unknown. “People in America look at pictures of Afghanistan and think Iraq is the same,” she said. “They think Iraqis are people who are uneducated, who are Bedouins living in tents, tending camels and sheep.” Until the plague of wars began devouring the country, she went on, Iraq was the leading nation in the region, with a highly educated people boasting the best doctors, teachers, and engineers. Americans, Sahar sighed, “don’t know this. And when you don’t know a person, you can’t feel for them, can you?”

She continued: “How many have been killed in Iraq? Bordering on a million. If you realize that these are real people with real feelings who are being killed—that they are fathers and husbands, teachers and doctors—if these facts could be made known, would people be so brutalized? It’s our job as Iraqi journalists to show that Iraqis are real people. This is what we try to advance through the blog.”

big ideas, personal, ruminations

I, like you, do the best I can

That title has been my About Me section on Facebook for some time. I wrote it almost without thought; it sounded nice. But when I reread it I liked it more than I had when I thought of it. I liked it more than I thought I could like anything I’d ever written.

What I liked most about it was the belief behind it. The belief that the world is not underperforming on our expectations, but is instead filled with people trying as hard as they can to do the best they know how.

That’s a key point for me. That the world is filled with people trying as hard as they can to do the best they know how. I struggle with this point a lot.

I, and I doubt I am alone here, find it easy to believe that I am doing my best. Of course I do the best I can, but I often struggle to allow that that fact is probably true of most others as well. That they think they are doing the best they know how.

There are a lot of people in this world that, at least at first glance, seem not to be trying very hard. You know, the kid down the hall at university who mostly just played video games and smoked weed. He was a slacker and you probably had various reasons for disliking him.

But, the more I thought about that kid, the more I realized he probably didn’t know all he could do. Sure, he could do better, but I doubt if anyone ever showed him how. His parents were probably distant and more involved with their futures than his. His teachers probably didn’t make sure he learned much; as long as he wasn’t failing they were happy. His friends were probably much like himself, well off and unaware of their advantages. Unaware of what advantages are.

And certainly he wasn’t doing much to make the world a better place, in whatever way I thought he should. But I find it hard to believe that he was earnestly and intentionally wasting time that he was aware could be spent doing other more useful things.

This little phrase reminds me that not everyone has had the advantages that I have had. That by virtue of the color of my skin, my state and country of residence, my parents, and my environment, I’ve been given a great deal more than most other people have ever gotten. And I’ve not had to work too exceptionally hard to get it.

These are things that may change what I think is the best I can do, but they don’t change the fact that you’re probably doing your best as well.

And even if you can’t actually believe that everyone around you is doing the best they can, there is another reason to use this phrase. It’s aspirational.

It’s useful to believe that others are doing the best they can, and that you can do it too. Maybe you doubt that fact, but wouldn’t it be more productive to assume that they are doing their best and act accordingly? To try to match yourself with your own high expectations, and not wait for the world to prove to you that it’s really good enough for you?

I think it’s more useful to believe the best and fear the worst than to believe the worst and hope for (or is it fear?) the best. It’s more useful for our own mental state to see the best rather than the worst in people. To watch for their success rather than where they falter.

And though I don’t alway succeed in that quest for the best, I’m willing and ready to try.