Periodically someone says something that puts it all into perspective. It makes all the petty details of life entirely moot. Such a thing happened to me last week.
The call came from a globe-trotting friend. "N’s getting out of Elbonia. He’s got a visa and a passport. I’m not sure how he got it, but he got it, and he’s got thirty days to leave." [In place of Elbonia, substitute the name of a country which has a repressive government, doesn’t allow it’s citizens to travel freely, and has an abominable human rights record. In the interest of my and N’s continued security, I won’t name the country.]
It was great news. When in Elbonia we had made many friends, and we were always concerned for their safety. One was jailed for associating with a foreigner, others lived with the same fear. The jailed friend will probably be paying off the government fine for "associating with foreigners" until after he dies.
The news out of Elbonia lately hadn’t been good either. The government was consolidating power, cracking down on dissent, and jailing anyone who dared to speak out.
"N needs to buy his own ticket and leave in the next thirty days, and to the tune of US$800, he needs some help." Individual wages in Elbonia were often as low as US$5 per month, and the cost of the ticket was clearly exorbiant. What’s worse is that even though he plans to seek asylum, he still had to buy a round trip ticket to maintain his cover.
Without thinking, both Sarah and I offered to pay for it. Neither of us has $800 to spend casually, but N was getting out! Any life was going to be better than where he was, lessons from "Moscow on the Hudson" notwithstanding. Everything we knew about N suggested he would be a successful immigrant, and possibly could find himself as a licensed electrician in not too long.
As Sarah spoke to one of the intermediaries (sort of an Elbonian Underground Railroad), I heard Sarah say the phrase, "That’s what money is for."
It summed it up so perfectly. That new TV? The office furniture I was planning on getting? The unplanned weekend getaway? The sixteen extravagant meals out? Put into perspective, they’re entirely silly compared to the cost of paying the Elbonian Underground Railroad to get N out.
In the days afterward, as others came forward to help pay for the cost of the plane ticket, our share went down, until it was less than half. We insisted on making sure he had some extra money, and after some logistics, the delivery instructions were worked out. I don’t suppose I have to tell you we’re not using Western Union, do I?
N’s getting out. And my bourgeois white collar office job is helping.
Because that’s what money is for.