A meditation on the price of opportunity
Today I felt it when I saw the snow.
I hadn’t left the apartment in two days and had been watching television and aimlessly browsing the Internet, procrastinating and avoiding the cold. I turns out that I avoided it so well that for a couple of moments I forgot about how cold it is out there. And I forgot about the snow. But then I looked out the window and saw that “landscape” of pure concrete and white and I felt it… my phantom pain. My new life companion.
I once read about a child who suffered from a condition that caused his legs to break constantly. He had spent his short life watching other children play and run and jump around him while he painfully recovered from fractures — only to have his bones break again as soon as he was out of a cast. He decided that there was a solution to his problem: he would have his legs cut off and willingly become an amputee. With prosthetic legs, he argued, he would be able to run and jump in ways his legs never could have — and he would be just like the other children.
I read about the child because his story made international news due to the fact that the choice he had to make was so horrifying.
I did find it horrifying, but also I thought that the child was brave and wise, and now his circumstances have given me the perfect metaphor to organize the mixture of ambivalent feelings that I have been struggling to come to terms with since I decided to undergo my own sort of amputation.
That child was fighting hard to convince everyone of his right to have his legs removed. However, if an interviewer had asked him to pause for a moment and answer the question: “What is it that you really want the most?,” his answer would not have been to have his legs cut. What he wanted was to run and jump and be able to do what other children could, and he was sacrificing his legs to be able to do so. But the other children hadn’t had to pay that steep price. The child’s answer to what he wanted the most would have likely been that he wanted his own legs to be as good as the other children’s. He knew that wasn’t going to happen, and so he made his choice.
You can never know what it is that will make you feel homesick. You spend the months leading up to the moment of departure going through a mental checklist of all the things you want to say goodbye to, the things you will miss. In a desperate attempt not to contribute to the cliché of “not knowing what we have until it is gone” you try to experience everything more intensely and take it all in, trying to memorize it. You know that a blow is coming and you try to brace for it, to shield yourself behind your well-planned goodbyes and your mental photo album of all that you love. But the blow still comes, almost randomly. Like when you see snow and are surprised that the view out your window is so white when all your life it’s been so green with specks of vibrant colors. A jolt of surprise followed by that now-familiar phantom pain of the limb you lost. The phantom pain of your phantom country.
Not a week goes by without me seeing a new Facebook post about someone’s opinion on the much-discussed topic of leaving Venezuela. By now we all know the opinions: we are the traitorous/victimized, cowardly/brave youth that abandoned/had to escape the wonderful/terrible country we were born in and we will now struggle and regret our decision/find better opportunities.
The only consensus seems to be that we are young people that are leaving the country we were born in. And isn’t that considered horrifying too?
I was born ambitious, I wanted to go far. But the weight of my broken country was holding me down, forcing me to sit and watch as other young people ran and jumped and accomplished great things. I did not hate my country, but I knew it would not let me run and I, like that kid, had a choice to make: I, too, would run and jump like the others — just not on my own legs.
Ideally, I would have wanted a country strong enough for me to stand on. I would have wished to keep that part of me. It hurt to leave and it hurts to remember. The phantom pain is always an instant away. It comes with the realization that the night is no longer filled with the sound of toads and crickets. It comes when you see a stranger in the street that almost looks exactly like a friend you left behind: you almost wave, almost approach to greet and kiss them, and then remember that you are in a place miles away from the people that have loved you and that you have loved. It is a longing to restore a severed connection that you chose to cut, a longing for the part of you that you chose to amputate.
The phantom pain will never leave. And no prosthetic legs will ever feel as familiar as the legs you were born with. Before running like the other young people, I have to learn to stand on these new legs, to take shaky steps. I often encounter situations that make me feel unqualified and that I do not belong. There is, metaphor aside, a real handicap to being labeled “alien.”
In a way, the phantom pain is also what keeps me going. Remembering the steep price and remembering the difficult choice also reminds me of a moment in which I was brave and set a goal for myself. The moment when I saw myself, complete, but limited in my future, and decided that my only choice was to be incomplete but limitless. The moment in which I did what seems horrifying and counterintuitive and left behind the familiar faces and familiar places. I did it so that I could run and jump and go far. When the phantom pain kicks in, I don’t regret it and I don’t find myself wishing I hadn’t done it. I just wish I hadn’t had the need to do it in the first place.