Today is International Day of Happiness. In my travels around the world and time working with immigrants and refugees in the United States, my perception of happiness has constantly changed. My thoughts now: most of the time if we aren’t happy, it seems it is because we don’t know or aren’t able to internalize our place of privilege. Working with limited English proficiency immigrants and refugees has been an interesting place where I have seen this.
It never seizes to amaze me how grateful and happy refugees and immigrants are. Working around this population is truly uplifting. And yet they have often horrible tragedies they can tell you about.
While in a former position, I was responsible for choosing a speaker for our annual fundraiser. The speaker ended up being one of our interpreters who was a Rwandan refugee. What he had been through was incredible and terrible. To this day, there are family members who disappeared during his escape of whom he still doesn’t know the whereabouts. And he was only eight years old when this happened.
His perspective was a great one. While he had experienced all these tragedies, he was grateful for all the help and opportunities he had received once arriving in the United States. He didn’t hang on to his past, though i have no doubt it stayed with him forever.
Then, I reflect on my own state of mind over my lifetime, and I don’t think I have experienced a comparable state of happiness and gratitude. But I am surrounded by privilege and people who care about me. I have shelter, a puppy I love, food every day, the opportunity to run my own business, and safety.
I have seen my privilege. I see where life should be full of butterflies and fairies, yet I am not blissfully happy. I have not internalized my privilege.
Part of this is my belief that I am part of a small group of people that’s in a fight for those less privileged, and I acknowledge the sacrifice I have to take as a result of surrounding myself by negative stories all day. I’m not saying “boo hoo, I’m a martyr,” but there is some truth to those in the humanitarian field who actively choose to take a hit in order to fight for those who are suffering.
I had a professor once who worked as a humanitarian aid provider is several conflict sites, including Darfur. She clearly had PTSD, unsurprising as she told us stories of her fellow Sudanese co-workers walking into meetings late and bloodied after their camp had been attacked. In her case too, the locals seemed more grateful than you would ever believe their circumstances would allow, while to this day she suffers with the memories of what she saw.
This is one of the several articles I have written where I feel like I have learned something along the way. So many refugees have thrived despite having faced the worst case scenario. So I ask myself, what right do I have to be miserable and ungrateful, as the people who have really suffered stand beside me happy and thriving in their new lives? My place of privilege is really the ability to remain unhappy despite everything I have around me, if I so choose. So on this International Day of Happiness, take a moment to try to internalize your privilege. Be grateful for what you have. That’s certainly what I’ll be doing.