Thursday, April 29, 2010
"The radio works only when the lights are on." In the old days, we blamed it on communism. In the old days, we blamed everything on communism. My landlady in Warsaw explained the radio problem with a sigh, as if to say, "there is nothing to be done." I was struck by how quickly and completely resigned she was to the apparent inevitability of inconvenience. It was a response I remembered well from the days of communism, saying in effect, "who knows why this is? It's just another one of life's annoying and inexplicable mysteries, having music only when the overhead light is switched on." It's not that she's stupid. She simply assumes that some situations are beyond her control. The moment she walked out the door, I unplugged the radio from its socket and found an outlet that wasn't wired to the light switch. I'm an American; it's what I do. On the one hand, Poles are incredibly resourceful, doggedly persistent and downright militant in their determination never to ever give up. But, about some things, surprisingly, many Poles of a certain age are all too quick to shrug, sigh and give in with passive acceptance to inconvenience, frustrating circumstances, and even injustice. Their resignation in the face of arbitrary vexations is a sad side-effect of growing up in a system where logic was irrelevant and relevance was altogether illogical. I am still surprised, occasionally amused, and most often unsettled to see some of my old friends' unwillingness to push, to look around for solutions, and by their failure to be assertive in figuring out problems like radio power. Or government power. Conditioning. Too many people my age were imprinted too early and for too long with this devilish notion that nothing can be done. "Resistance is futile." Today's forty and fifty-somethings are too young to have caught their parents' and societies' fervor for rebuilding in the immediate post-War period. They came of age after the drama and activism of the late 1960's when, in 1968, student strikes and protests in Poland were the first to launch that tumultous year of student activism around the world, from Paris to Berkeley. They missed the moments of collective energy and the synergy for change. They tended not to be the leaders of Solidarity when it set Poland on 'tilt' and began unraveling the communist world. Many, in fact, left Poland during that period and emigrated to Australia, England, Sweden, Paris, and the United States. Not that one could ever blame them! I was surprised to return to Warsaw in 2007 for the first time in 20 years to discover that many of my old friends, once lively and resourceful, were feeling displaced and still at sea in the new world. Confused, resigned, and passive. Still living, in a way, in the old world where capricious, illogical, and dominating external powers thwarted and disabled their own capacities to make things happen. My landlady visited me once that summer and was shocked to see that I'd moved the radio, that it was on, even while the overhead lights were not. She was shocked when I explained how I solved the problem, and shook her head, as if to say (as Poles often do), "those crazy Americans!"