Friday, February 16, 2007

The Pursuit of Happiness

After our conversation yesterday, Heather sent me 2 articles about happiness. One (from Fast Company – – which appears to be a career magazine) was about jobs, and the author was interviewing a career specialist who seemed to think that choosing your job based on personal happiness was ridiculous, and that people should be doing what will improve their skills and advance their position, whether they like it or not. The other one (from Yoga Journal) was about how the expectation of happiness results in extra pressure on people who aren’t happy – so that if you are depressed you feel like a failure, and the cycle continues.

Today, there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about an upcoming forum that Canada and the United States are holding on mental health, which they’ve decided is necessary since a recent poll shows that 1 in 6 Canadian and American adults have been diagnosed with depression.

So here’s the questions? Number 1 – should we expect to be happy? And, number 2 – does our expectation of happiness actually lead to more depression?

So first – should we expect to be happy? In the article from Yoga Journal, the author notes that the concept of a right to be happy is a relatively recent thing, and that through most of human history, there was no such expectation. In the American Constitution, the “pursuit of happiness” is protected. But Americans, along with us here in Canada, are suffering from an alarming rate of depression (but that’s maybe getting into question #2). Should we expect to be happy? Well – of course I want to be happy, but I don’t know if it’s fair to expect it all the time. Awful devastating things happen in the world, and we should be able to engage with them when they happen to us, or people we care about, or even to complete strangers – and we shouldn’t be happy, because they are not happy things. It seems that if we selfishly pursued happiness at all costs, we could never truly love – because love involves compassion and empathy, and it can also involve sacrifice. I think that love is more important than happiness.

The next question – are we making ourselves unhappy through our pursuit of happiness? I don’t want to make any kind of blanket statement about this because, just like depression can be worsened by the feeling that have failed by being unhappy, it seems like blaming the depressed person for even wanting to be happy is equally unhelpful. So, with the caveat that I don’t want this to turn into some kind of victim-blaming session, I will proceed: yes, I think that we are making ourselves unhappy. First, I believe the idea that the expectation of happiness is stressful. It comes out in our worries about jobs – the idea that we have to find the most amazing fulfilling position right away, or we’re selling out – there’s all this stress, because of the feeling like we need to be fulfilled, as well as making money and developing skills.

I think that one of the fundamental problems, beyond the stress of unfulfilled expectations, that leads to our pursuit of happiness resulting in more depression is that we don’t even know how to pursue happiness. We get all these images of what happiness is supposed to be – whether it’s a perfect wedding followed by a white picket fence, or a backpack and the open road, or a hot tank-top and a club. And then we end up in these moments that we orchestrate, and feel like they’re supposed to be enough, and now we should be happy, but then we realize that they’re not enough, and we’re not happy, and don’t understand why the people in the movies seemed so ecstatic when they were in these situations. . . . enter the feeling of failure for not being happy, and the depression that you are trying to live the dream, and the dream is hollow.

And so here we are, the wealthiest and the most depressed continent in the world. It would seem like living the dream isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. . . but I don’t want to leave on such a bleak note. I think that we can reach beyond trying to blindly pursue happiness. We can pursue truth and love, and these things will lead to happiness some of the time. And some of the time they will lead to our hearts being broken, but we will be closer to being real and to being fulfilled than if we binge on soma (Brave New World? Anyone?) and just try to be happy all the time.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Job, Career, Vocation?

The impending end of articles and the subsequent looming of the big bad world has got many people I know fairly pre-occupied. I've realized that the stress, at least for some of us, comes partially from the tension between trying to figure out if we're looking for a job, a career, or a vocation - or wanting to find a vocation, but having the sneaking suspicion we are going to settle for a job.

So, this has made me wonder - are we asking for too much, hoping that we will find a vocation, that our days will be filled with something that we feel truly called to, and that will make a difference in the world? I know there are people who do what they do during the day, but find their passion elsewhere - but few people I know would be happy with that. Is this a natural product of being over-educated? - it's hard after 8 years of university to get out of a mindset of having meaningful work, and in professional training, such as law school, there's the added element that you learn to see your identity as being associated with your profession.

Or, is that voice telling me I am looking for too much the same voice that generally sucks the passion of youth out of people, and convinces them that all they want is a mortgage and an SUV, when they never remember dreaming of those things before? And thus the tension again - I don't want to settle, but I don't want to be foolish - I don't want to hold onto this romantic dream of doing something "adventurous" if it's out of habit - it can become as much a societal expectation (just a different society) as the settling down urge, if you aren't careful.

And then back to the question - am I making too big of a deal out of this anyway, because it doesn't really matter what I do with my days, as long as I do it with integrity and to the best of my ability? Or, am I expecting too much, and we all have to make choices, and deal with the choices that are handed to us - am I expecting I'll have it all?

A year ago, Sulini sent around an article about how our generation is paralyzed by having too many choices, and maybe that's what this is all about - and I just have to move forward in some direction, keep my eyes open, and continue to evaluate where I'm at, and figure out if it's good for me. Generally, I don't believe in fatalism, and that there's only one right path for a person, but it's easy to forget that and get bogged down in this feeling that what I choose now will shape my life forever. I think that I really do want a vocation, but it probably won't happen tomorrow, and I have to stay true to what I believe (man, this sounds cheesy) and use whatever job comes my way to learn and grow.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Well Founded Fear of Persecution

Here's an interesting news clipping. I found it quite disturbing that the fact that the kid wasn't sexually active as a teen (when he was hanging out with the Seventh Day Adventist Church?) was used as a stroke against him. In his situation, it seems like quite natural behaviour to hide your sexuality. Besides which, maybe he hasn't met someone he wants to have sex with. Or he felt too young. Or, being scared of being beat, he had mental and emotional barriers that kept him out of a relationship.

It makes me think of people having to prove their marriage is bona fide so they can sponsor their spouse - how do you prove love? How do you prove sexuality? I understand that they have to go through the evidence process to determine if people are genuine or if they're using the system, but it's so invasive, and open to the biases of the way the examiner thinks someone should behave (which isn't always how the individuals have behaved - once again, we're dealing with love and sexuality here . . .). And back to the issue of marriage . . . Canadians have arranged marriages in other countries and then bring their spouses to Canada. How do they prove the marriage is bona fide when there is no history to the relationship?

February 7, 2007

Can't prove he's gay, teen is denied asylum

Nicaraguan fears his return home as board member unconvinced over sexuality


Alvaro Antonio Orozco, a gay teen runaway from Nicaragua, was denied asylum in Canada because the Immigration and Refugee Board didn't believe he was a homosexual.

Mr. Orozco, now 21, is slated for removal next Tuesday to a country where sodomy is illegal and to a family that he says beat him and taunted him for his sexual orientation ever since he was a young boy. "My father called me 'marica ' [a derogatory word for gay], and told me he would beat it out of me," Mr. Orozco said. "But it's impossible to prove you are gay."

Soft-spoken with delicate features, wearing a pink-checked shirt, Mr. Orozco certainly looks the part, and says that from a young age he felt and behaved differently. He was drawn to artistic pursuits and often played indoors as a child, and today aspires to be a nurse.

But Deborah Lamont, the IRB member who heard his case via video-conference from Calgary, didn't believe Mr. Orozco was gay because he wasn't sexually active during his teen years, and wasn't clear about his sexual orientation when he fled Nicaragua at the age of 12.

El-Farouk Khaki, his lawyer, says the case shows the difficulty of gay refugee claimants who come from a macho or homophobic culture and are unaccustomed to living an openly gay lifestyle. It also reflects a stereotype in assuming gay teens are more sexually active than heterosexual teens.

"I think the decision shows a lack of understanding of issues facing queer kids from homophobic cultures and what they have to deal with in terms of gender stereotypes," he said.

Mr. Orozco's last hope is to appeal for a ministerial permit from Immigration Minister Diane Finley. "We are asking the minister to grant him a stay of removal on humanitarian grounds and allow him to stay," Mr. Khaki said.

Mr. Khaki, who didn't represent Mr. Orozco at the hearing, is also filing a motion to reopen his refugee claim, arguing there was a breach of natural justice because the member failed to consider guidelines on treatment of a vulnerable person.

Mr. Orozco is vulnerable, his lawyer added, because he is young, uneducated, alone, a victim of domestic abuse and homeless. He also stutters, which impedes communication.

In Nicaragua, a 1992 amendment to the penal code criminalized same-sex relationships, and the law is vague enough that individuals campaigning for gay rights or providing sexual health information could also be prosecuted, according to a 2006 Amnesty International report.

"The law criminalizing sodomy was introduced in 1992 and [there] was a concerted effort to put it on the books despite lobbying and criticism by human rights groups," said Mr. Khaki, who has represented other gay Nicaraguan refugee claimants with success.

Since coming to Toronto two years ago, Mr. Orozco says he has finally felt comfortable to live a gay lifestyle, and spends his weekends at gay bars. "The law protects me here. In Nicaragua, I could be put in jail," he says. "I still fear my father, who threatened that he would kill me for being gay."

His life story is a dramatic one: He ran away from home just before his 13th birthday, fleeing his alcoholic father. He hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico, and made it to the Mexican-Texas border, where he swam across the Rio Grande with a Honduran boy. However, he nearly drowned after his legs became entangled in algae and he couldn't swim against the strong currents. His Honduran friend saved him, and they swam to safety.

U.S. immigration officials arrested Mr. Orozco, and he spent a year in a detention centre in Houston. He was 14. He was released when he agreed to return to Nicaragua. Instead, he ran away and was taken in by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Terrified they would reject him if they discovered he was gay, he says he kept his sexual orientation hidden. He was also scared because he was living in the United States illegally.

IRB member Ms. Lamont didn't accept this explanation. "I found the claimant's many explanations unsatisfactory for why he chose not to pursue same-sex relationships in the U.S. as he alleged it was his intention to do so and he wanted to do so," she ruled.

Instead, she concluded: ". . . he is not a homosexual . . . and fabricated the sexual orientation component to support a non-existent claim for protection in Canada."

Mr. Orozco said he didn't seek asylum in the United States on the advice of church officials there. In 2005, he took a bus to Buffalo after reading about Canada's support for gay rights and generous asylum program on the Internet. He made his way to a Buffalo shelter, Vive La Casa, which helped him make a refugee claim.

Today, Mr. Orozco is being assisted by a Toronto program for gay newcomers and refugee claimants run by Supporting Our Youth (SOY). Gay refugee claimants often have trouble persuading IRB members they are sincere, especially if they are poor witnesses, said Suhail Abualsameed, program director.

Mr. Orozco went before the IRB with no supporting documentation from gay advocates. "She asked me for proof of being gay and I didn't have it," he said. "But it is illogical that she didn't believe me."