What do you do when you feel stuck in a situation and there’s no way out? A traffic jam, for instance, or a difficult financial situation, a mistake you made in a relationship. Being stuck isn’t just something people find themselves in in every day life, though. Bigger things can be at stake. You could be put on trial for your beliefs, like Galileo was, because the world isn’t yet ready to accept the idea you have to offer–your ideas aren’t in fashion and those in power don’t want to hear it. This has happened to many groups of people through the centuries–women, Jews, Christians, Muslims, immigrants–those on the fringes of society. Recently, I finished reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, and Barzini describes how the Italian culture is one that has learned to live with centuries of oppression and corrupt leadership. Revolt wasn’t possible, so the Italian way of dealing with problem through the centuries has been to evade the powerful as much as possible, avoid doing the unusual, and to hide their inner most feelings in order to survive. The one institution that Italians consitantly feel faithful to, Barzini explains, is the family. Outwardly, Italians act friendly toward all, but underneath the surface there is a kind of frustration. They resign themselves to discontentment. Barzini quotes Ignazio Silone who explains that to cope, Italians take to “every known means of escape: they feign exaggerated gaiety, awkwardness, a passion for women, for food, for their country, and, above all, for fine-sounding words; they become, as chance may have it, policemen, monks, terrorists, war heroes. I think that there has never been a race so fundamentally desolate and desperate…” (p. 336) To make the time under oppressive rulers bearable, Italians did what they could to make life as enjoyable as possible. Barzini suggests that while this appeal to the senses is why many visitors feel attracted to Italy– it is also what makes it difficult for Italy to solve its problems. What appears to give them freedom is also a trap.
Recently, Italy’s sales tax rose from 21% to 22%, a move met with protests by Italian citizens. NBC news reports “Italy’s beleaguered former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is this week facing a major decision: to leave politics or to drag the country’s fragile government down with him. In a chaotic series of events over the weekend, Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his support from the Cabinet — leaving the government hanging by a thread.” When you can’t count on your country’s leaders, and they don’t act in the best interest of the people, it makes sense that citizens turn to their families as the main institution to trust–people trust and protect those they know. It also makes sense to me that people would throw their energy into creative efforts of food and art. These are outlets of creative expression, and creative acts have proven consistently over time to renew our spirits, though it’s true that they may not solve the greater political problems countries might have.
The manuscript I’ve been working on about Italian immigrants from Calabria to America, Finding Home, explores how one Italian family responds to poverty and oppression and uses courage in the everyday acts of their lives to work their way into a different future for themselves and for their family. Illiteracy in southern Italy was as high as 70% in 1900, and most of America’s Italian immigrants at that time were from southern Italy. “As early as 1890, 90 percent of New York City’s public works employees and 99 percent of Chicago’s street workers were Italian. Many Italian immigrant women worked, but almost never as domestic servants.” (Digital History) Perhaps laying roads and digging tunnels for the subway are not what most people would call high level creativity, but working with their hands, hard, physical labor was a way out of poverty for many immigrants. It was a better solution than the fixed life of poverty they were stuck with in their own country. They recreated their futures, as well as ours as Americans, and today American citizens still benefit from their labor.
Physical labor labor can be truly rewarding, you can see the results of your work immediately. Immigrants and workers literally created much of the physical reality we live and work in. They re-imagined a future other than the one they were born into, got on a boat and pursued it, day after day working to make a future they wanted to live in. Maybe you’ve heard of the value of having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, the immigrants clearly had a growth mindset, a way of thinking that is open, flexible, creative, willing to put in long-term serious consistent effort, the kind that gets people somewhere different in the world. Such a mindset takes vision, and purpose. If you haven’t seen this video, Caine’s Arcade, about a young boy who followed his passion making cardboard arcade games and how it changed his life and many others too, you might like to watch it to see the difference our actions can make when we have a dream and a purpose.