Living With the Migrants

To judge by the bewilderment of responsible European politicians, but also of all the rest of us Europeans, it seems that there are two big psychological obstacles that make dealing with the current issue of immigration more difficult, as if it weren't already difficult enough on its own.

The first is our habit -- explained by circumstances and history, and to which there are hardly any more living generations that are immune -- to think that the part of the world in which we live always offers living conditions that are both good and slowly improving, along with more widespread affluence, growing wealth, more material goods and the chance to enjoy them. Or at most that there may be slowdowns and setbacks along this journey, but not reversals. We aren't prepared to consider that we may have to sacrifice what we've attained (or found) up to now, especially from a long-term point of view. At most, we might have to make temporary sacrifices while awaiting a fresh start. It's difficult for us to grasp what we're sensing now, the idea that what we now have will, in the future, be shared with more people, involving sacrifice and making things harder. It's not selfishness (not many of us are selfish); it's because it's never happened to us. We used to think we were removed from it since we no longer fought wars in our countries. We're discovering that we can't ignore those in other countries. It's the same human frailty we exhibit toward aging: as much as we know it will happen, we've been struggling for millennia to get used to and accept the idea that things will get worse, and to find a way to enjoy the change nonetheless.

The other psychological obstacle is the widespread inclination to think that problems have "a solution," in the sense of a single solution. A reassuring clever idea, or policy, or plan, or action will settle the matter -- even at some cost -- so that we can then return to concerning ourselves with other things. A great many problems don't have a solution of this kind -- some of them don't have any solutions at all. They can only be mitigated through an ongoing, steady willingness to deal with them every day, flexibly and inventively, depending on context, necessities, and possibilities. This is a disheartening approach for many, because it amounts to the idea that we'll never be rid of the problem, that we'll have to "live with the earthquake," to recall an enlightening Italian metaphor from years ago.

This inability to acquiesce thus shapes the critical response to each welcome or helpful, concrete step to locally address the problems of one immigrant, or ten, or thirty-seven. Or to the idea that by diminishing the problems, the plight and want are eased for a day. Or to the notion that a first step is being taken toward a normal future for a person or for the community where he or she arrives. The reactions that go something like "you don't solve the immigration problem that way" are variations on a refusal to do a little because there's so much more that needs be done. Sometimes they're in bad faith, sometimes not: it's painful to think about it. But we have to learn to see the immigration problem as one that can't really be solved. It can't be solved. It can be lived with, acting every day, in whatever way is possible and necessary, each for his or her own part, as with so many other problems as we grow older.