Jay and I never envisioned that our first time in Europe together would be to make a documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking. Before this project was conceived, we had pictured taking in all the glorious sights, marvelling at the historical architecture, and spending days exploring beautiful nature. Instead we get to visit red light districts, hear the stories of both domestic and international victims, run past monuments and landmarks on the way to interviews, and spend some beautiful days indoors instead of outdoors, catching up on emails and research.
The selfish part of me sighs. The focused part of me pushes forward. The traveller part of me whines. The compassionate part of me remembers that these women are worth it. I am like a walking oxymoron, a contradiction within myself.
Thinking of all the abuse, the broken systems, and the darkness we are learning about, I recently told Jay, “at least we are seeing the real side if Europe.” I admit there was an air of superiority in my voice as I expressed the fact that I was seeing what actually goes in these cities while most people only see the nice things. Expecting him to nod in agreement, he said something that startled me. He pointed to the beautiful part of town we were passing and said,
“Michelle, this is also the real side of Europe.”
It’s true. And for a moment I grieved that I had become so callous.
Europe, or North America, or Asia – or whatever part of the world you happen to be in – is both. Both ugly and beautiful, despairing and hopeful, sad and joyful, good and evil. It contains compassion and aggression, greed and generosity, hatred and love, exploitation and empowerment.
I have always thought that seeing the world through the lens of a tourist is dangerous and wrong, because it ignores the suffering and reality of day-to-day life. But this week I have come to a different conclusion. I believe it is wrong to see the world only through that lens, but to remove it entirely is not necessary either. It is okay to marvel at the grandeur of Notre Dame, or to savour the taste of a delicate dessert, or squeal with delight at the sight of Christmas lights. It is good to be enchanted with a story from history, or to breathe deeply the air of the mountains in a foreign land, or to stop and listen to someone playing music on the street.
Focusing on these beautiful things alone can lead to a self-absorbed life, void of purpose. But if we couple our love and passion for life with a compassion and concern for other humans, we might just feel energized enough to make a difference in the world.
Perhaps celebrating life – with eyes open – is one of the best ways to inspire change, and drag the darkness into the light.