Sometimes I Think I’m Dreaming…

Sarah's KeyI wrote this in 2011 but recent events have reminded me of its timeliness.

Sometimes I think I’m dreaming… And, sometimes I imagine the nightmare on the flipside of my dream. In the dream I am a child of privilege – born healthy, of middle class white parents, in the middle of the 20th century in America. It’s all about timing and location. Too young to know the deprivation of the Great Depression. Too young to fight in WWII and Korea. Military service before Vietnam. Too old for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two public universities while they were still free, and now receiving full Social Security and Medicare just as it was promised. I can’t imagine a better dream but it’s not a dream – it’s my reality.

So what’s the nightmare? In moments of existential angst I sometimes fear that I will be reincarnated as a Somali woman with three children, no food, no water, in a lawless barren landscape surrounded by the mercenary soldiers of some two-bit warlord who thinks humanitarian aid is a plot to take his puny little fiefdom away from him. That’s my nightmare, but it is reality for thousands of Somalis and Congolese.

My reality is someone else’s dream and my nightmare is someone else’s awful reality. I try to be mindful that my existence on this planet is a gift. I didn’t do anything to make it happen and it’s clearly not fair when Somalis by some malevolent role of the dice are malnourished, sick, and persecuted. Last night while I was driving to the gym I heard the story of a father who walked 300 miles in 30 days with his three sick, malnourished children to reach help in a refugee camp in Kenya. I drive half a mile to buy milk for my morning latte.

What’s my point? It’s really a question; given the misery, greed, suffering, and outright evil in the world is it possible to stay optimistic about the future of civilization? It’s not impossible for me but can that Somali woman be optimistic about chances that her children’s hunger and illness will be dealt with? Her whole being is focused on getting help for her children. It’s not about her own well being. Maybe she can’t act otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, we humans are hardwired to “believe” and not give up even when the odds are terrible.

The recent past is full of examples that support the other view. Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon, Virginia Tech all took place in our own well-healed country. You don’t have to look at the Cold War nuclear standoff or the battle between Muslim terrorists and the West to see the downside. In my lifetime the North Vietnamese tortured and killed their own countrymen when their loyalty was in question. Then, when they prevailed, they confiscated the property of their South Vietnamese countrymen and imprisoned them in “re-education” camps for up to 10 years. But, they didn’t kill their spirit and optimism. Many of those “losers” left the camps and risked everything in rickety boats to start a new life – optimistic that there was a future for them somewhere. And, for many, there was.

In the disturbing book and movie Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, we watch the French police herding Jews into trucks for the Germans. 76,000 French Jews were sent to the extermination camps by their own countrymen. The Danes and the Dutch refused to do it, but the French sent their own people to die in the camps. Where is the case for optimism? The French were not illiterate Africans fighting for their own survival. They were one of the most literate, developed, and sophisticated cultures on the planet at the time.

There are so many contemporary examples of countrymen tormenting and torturing each other – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iran, Gaza, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo. Can we be optimistic in a world that acts like this? I’ve always considered myself a short term pessimist and long term optimist. I don’t know why or what I have to be optimistic about. It might just be the child of privilege legacy. Still… I believe we can do better. I will probably always have the nightmares, but I guess there’s a little of Sisyphus in all of us. We just need to keep pushing the boulder up the hill in the hope that when we get to the top it will stay there.


  1. Jack, This is one of your more inspired essays. I will be passing it on to a few people who will appreciate it.

  2. Jack, this is wonderful. I too have moments of wondering and despair for others on this planet that are unable to rise above the hell they live in. I try to be optimistic but it is an uphill battle for me. So i take one small piece of my world and try to improve that hoping that the ripples will expend outward.

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