I have been spending a lot more time living in Mexico these past few years, and one of my earliest observations of the culture was how helpful it is. At every turn, if I need assistance with anything, I am always responded to warmly and graciously. This is so often not the experience in the U.S., a culture of extreme self-sufficiency and individualism, bolstered by a "pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps" mindset." Figuring things out on your own is a prized virtue, and there is a fierce independence that tends to diminish the value of the giving and receiving of help on a daily basis.
(As a relevant side note, my Spanish teacher in LA, originally from Mexico, said one of the hardest things for her about living in the U.S. was that people rarely offered help to strangers. She would joke about how irritating it was to her when people would say “just google it” in response to a sincere inquiry.)
So anyway, on a recent trip back to LA from Mexico, as the passengers on our flight were being shuttled to the customs area, you could literally feel a sense of anxiety on the bus. The smell of fear was in the air, and of course, why wouldn’t it be. The current global climate certainly warrants it. As I proceeded through customs, I was ushered over to an extremely short line. And initially I was like, great, as who wants to wait in a super long line. The problem was, I saw another U.S. citizen from my same flight, a Latino man, being sent to a much longer line. Our passports were the same, and as far as I could tell, the only difference between us was our skin color. This was disturbing on many levels, and was made all the worse when after exiting the customs area, I encountered a massive video projection of the Statue of Liberty on a huge wall. As if somehow, it was supposed to symbolize the warm welcoming of people into this country. But of course, nothing about this symbol of liberty rang true with the fear I had just felt from those around me on the flight, as well as the re-direction of fellow citizens into different lines.
As I stood at the arrivals curb waiting to be picked up, an elderly Mexican woman (probably close to 80) asked me hesitantly if I spoke Spanish. I replied “un poco,” and we began a conversation about her attempts to contact her nephew who was supposed to pick her up. She had come from Mexico City to visit his mother who was quite ill. Her cell phone didn’t have international service and she wondered if I could call him on my phone. Several times she tried to pull up his number on her phone to give to me, but couldn’t access it, and her hand was shaking the entire time. Eventually we found his number, I called, and we were able to talk to him and tell him where she was waiting. After speaking to him, she was visibly relieved, stopped shaking, and said how nervous she had been about finding him amongst all the crowds. LAX can be an intense airport at any age when it’s extremely busy, and navigating it not knowing the language or having anyone familiar with you is understandably anxiety-producing. I told her how happy I was to be able to help her, as I had just experienced daily help from people while in Mexico, and to be able to reciprocate even a fraction of all the assistance that had come my way felt so appropriate. Kindness tends to work that way, after all. As it’s given away, it wants to be duplicated.
These separate, but related vignettes are intended to illustrate a little bit of what is needed now more than ever around the globe. Interactions on a personal level between individuals from countries at odds with one another can have tremendous energetic impact and produce important fruit: things like a shared understanding and an affirmation of one another’s common humanity. But most importantly, these interactions work powerfully to mitigate the culture of fear we are currently living in. Any governmental policy, action, or failure to act that is based in fear will never produce something positive. But as fear has become the weapon of choice in these divisive times, a determination to come together in whatever ways we can grows increasingly vital.
The good news is, we have much more power to move towards unity than we realize. Despite broken governmental systems, we need not be passive bystanders, nor should we ever downplay the significance of what may seem like small actions. Collectively, we can shift darkness towards light. No step towards kindness and understanding is ever wasted. And at the end of the day, it will carry far more potency than fear ever will.