Unsheltered

2011 jan26 Egypt Revolution

Over the past several weeks, I have found myself riveted by the protests in Egypt and across the Middle East, just as I was by the Iranian protests of 2009. I’ve watched the footage of chanting citizens and marauding thugs and remained glued to television and the Internet for details about tear gas, imprisonments, and casualties. I would like to claim that I’m always this engaged in world events, but that’s not true. It’s political protest and revolution; they are like crack to me. I crave updates and, without them, I experience withdrawal.

But any old update won’t do. While I read written reports, they are unsatisfying. I need video. I have to see the faces and hear the voices, and that got me wondering why.

I’m sure that one of the reasons has to do with imagination. When I see the settings, the throngs of people, the barricades and overturned cars, I can better imagine what it might be like to roam those streets and risk my life for the sake of a nation or a way of life. It makes me wonder: in the face of danger and oppression, would I dare to step out of my house and join the cause? Watching the footage of the protests has helped me realize that it’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know what I would risk because I’ve never experienced oppression. I’ve been sheltered and lucky. I am wholly unfamiliar with this type of human drama. So on one level, the video coverage provides me with some vicarious taste of a different way of thinking and being. It unshelters me a little, even for a moment, even from the safety of my sofa, and for that I am grateful.

The other reason I watch is more basic, even primal. On some level, what I take from the video has less to do with governments or uprisings than with faces and emotions. Rarely is such a range of emotions expressed in such a short period of time. The faces I saw in the footage coming out of Egypt expressed desperation, anger, fear, but also hope and unadulterated exultation. As I watched coverage of the celebrations after Egypt’s president stepped down, I was struck by how rarely we see expressions of strong emotions in general, and unbridled joy in particular, during the course our everyday lives.

I’ll ask you the same question I asked myself. How often do you see people truly joyous? Not just laughing at a joke or having a good time with friends, but reveling in life-changing happiness? Almost never. In the U.S., most of us have what we need, if not always want we want. We have our freedom and our rights in a democracy. We usually have access to shelter, medical services, and plentiful (maybe too plentiful) food. Even if we’re sometimes unhappy with our government, we know we had a voice in its election and we know we only have to wait a few years to usher in a new one. The stakes are so much lower, and so is the potential for our experience of joy.

Social psychologists have theories about emotional contagion, or the idea that when we see a person experiencing a strong emotion we can ‘catch’ that emotion ourselves. I’m no social psychologist and I would rather not think of emotions as analogous to disease, but I will say that some of Egypt’s faces and emotions really gripped me over the last few weeks. In one cable news video, three young girls described their plans to become a doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer. Online footage by the New York Times captured an elderly advocate for women’s rights who spoke of freedom with breathless excitement amid the throngs in Tahrir Square. When I saw these and other smiling faces, I ‘caught’ some serious joy. And I was reminded of how damn remarkable and good it is to simply be alive.

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Photo credit: Darla Hueske

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