In our office, we have a mantra: “You have to laugh or else you would cry.” Maybe working in the field of human rights exposes us to more situations where crazy and ridiculous things happen, but my hunch is – probably not. All you have to do is read the newspaper (how about that woman who tried to mail a puppy?) or watch an episode of “The Office” to come to a different conclusion. The common element here is that we are all humans. We can all be petty and mean and make a big deal about things that seem to be critically important to us at the time, but which, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter. We don’t always think through the consequences of our actions and we’re usually not very self-aware. That means that we cause crazy and ridiculous things to happen in our interactions with each other. What I’ve learned – and what I’m trying to teach my kids – is that you can’t control what other people do. But you can control how you handle your reaction to the crazy and ridiculous things that happen to you.
Let me tell you a story about one of my asylum clients who had to deal with something crazy and ridiculous and totally out of her control. Asylum seekers are fingerprinted as part of the asylum application process so that the fingerprint can be checked against the millions of fingerprints in the government’s electronic database. After her asylum interview, my client was instructed to put her index finger on small pad to take an electronic fingerprint. The asylum officer, looking at the computer monitor, got a strange look on her face. “Try it again,” she instructed. My client did so. “You have to look at this,” she said to me.
I could see that my client was getting more and more nervous by the second. She was an older woman from a country in West Africa. She had a valid asylum claim, but it wasn’t the strongest case in the world. To be granted asylum in the U.S., you have to show that you have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group. That definition comes from the 1950 Refugee Convention, and it reflects the experience of World War II rather than the modern experience of conflict. The biggest problem I saw when I was doing asylum work was not that people were coming to the U.S. and fraudulently applying for asylum. The biggest problem was that there were a lot of people who had experienced persecution but couldn’t show why there was a connection to one of the five grounds. In other words, if you were a victim of random violence in a war in your home country, that isn’t enough to get you asylum in the U.S. We had worked hard to put together a case for my client that showed that the killing of her family and the burning of her home was connected to her tribe (social group) being targeted by one of the fighting factions. She had testified honestly and well. And now, from her perspective, she was going to be denied the safety of staying in the U.S. because of something completely out of her control. Something was wrong with her fingerprint.
My client and I went around to the other side of the desk and looked at the computer screen. There was the digital image of a fingerprint. Right next to it was a photograph of a young, surly-looking man. Under the photo was a caption that said, “Guatemalan Recidivist”. The asylum officer and I looked at each other, paused, and then just burst out laughing. My client didn’t laugh, though. “But that’s not me!” she insisted. “No, of course not,” said the asylum officer. “But that’s not me!” my client said again. “It’s picking up only part of your fingerprint and matching you with the Guatemalan guy,” said the asylum officer. “Sometimes that happens, especially if you’ve got dry skin. I’ll get you some lotion and we’ll try again.” My client looked relieved. “OK, because if there is one thing I know, it is that I am NOT from Guatemala.” As I was driving her back to her house, I told my client, “Sometimes you have to laugh about these things or else you would cry.” Maybe I said it before that day, but that is the first time I remember saying it.
As a coping strategy, humor has come in handy for me when dealing with the absurdities of parenthood. It’s probably safe to say that having a sense of humor about the crazy and ridiculous things my children have done has saved my sanity. I’ll close with a few examples of situations where I had to laugh or else I would cry.
This photo of my ruined front lawn was selected for the “Sh*t My Kids Ruined” book. I couldn’t find a photo that was high enough resolution for the publishers, so I’m not sure that it will be included.
I posted this photo on Facebook a couple weeks ago with the caption “Sometimes I’m not sure how I’m gonna make it through the next 9 winters.”
Finally, here is a video of my family in Olso, shortly after we had to leave the Nobel Peace Prize Center because my children were fighting too much. It’s going to come in handy if one of them ever wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
You really, really can’t make this stuff up!