The Gift of Freedom: How Liberating Another Helped Me Liberate Myself

Sara Bergamaschi
Photo by Emad Karim

To be wild is to be ready to cross boundaries without fearing the unknown. In our Rejection issue, we covered the journey of Thair, a Syrian refugee. Here, the person who helped ferry him to safety explores how risking her career and her safety ultimately strengthened her own sense of freedom.

“Like a captive flung into a deep empty well, I know not where I am nor what awaits me. One thing only is revealed to me, that in the cruel and stubborn struggle with the Devil, the principle of material forces, it is fated that I shall be victorious; and thereafter, spirit and matter are to merge together in exquisite harmony and the reign of Universal Will is to begin.” [The Seagull, Anton Chekhov]

What does it mean to be wild? The question makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s controversial play “Salome,” a high school production of which I once acted in. Salome, the protagonist, is a woman with wild desires so strong that they overpower her world and life itself. She concludes in her final monologue, “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” Wild is whatever shakes you to the core like a sudden storm.

 
“The injustice and cruelty of it all started to shake my faith in humanity.”
 

To be labeled “wild” typically has negative connotations, but I believe that being wild essentially means letting go of our inhibitions and societal constraints, which can be a good thing in a society that pushes us to conform to selfish, materialistic, and corrupt ideals. Conformity to such banal ideals keep us running after wealth and prestige while distracting us from our true desires and hindering our ability to live up to our human potential.

To be wild, by contrast, is to risk your career, your reputation, and your comfort for someone or something so dear to your heart that losing everything seems worth it. It’s the new reality you embrace after you realize that you have chosen a life that doesn’t excite you in an attempt to hide from potential pain and heartbreak. The truth is that your heart must get broken at least once before it can fully open itself up to true love and wild experiences. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”

Last year, I acted on impulse to give the gift of freedom to someone very dear to me, crossing national borders and legal lines along the way. In so doing, I liberated myself from fear and unleashed my wild side.

Thair and I became close friends while I was studying abroad in Syria in 2009. When war broke out in his country five years ago, it changed the course of his life and set in motion a crazy, life-changing adventure we undertook together so he could start a new life in Germany. As I drove Thair across Europe to safety, I was also driving myself out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. When you undertake such a trip with someone who has lost everything, you realize what it means to go through life without attachments, without resentment, without ever looking back, and with a heart full of joy and appreciation for every good moment in life.

A few months later, I repeated the trek across Europe, this time to help Thair’s brother and his family, who also hoped to make Germany their new home. The violence and destruction they had survived in Syria was so atrocious that risking their children’s lives on a rubber dinghy seemed safe by comparison. The injustice and cruelty of it all started to shake my faith in humanity until this family who had lost everything taught me never to let hope die. I was in awe of their strength. They never stopped believing it would be possible to pick up the pieces and start over. Wild is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unfathomable adversity.

To be wild is also to accept the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in life instead of driving yourself crazy trying in vain to resolve them.

 
“… it is essential to understand that your identity is the product of all the choices you’ve ever made.”
 

The person in my life I most admire is a young Singaporean lawyer named Natasha who has been working in Afghanistan for over three years to strengthen the rule of law and improve protections for human rights, especially of women. Once she told me about how she tried to help an enslaved boy who was doomed to a life of abuse, misery, and injustice after his uncle sold him to a warlord. Natasha’s husband warned her that the warlord, someone they knew by odious reputation, would send his henchmen after her if she got involved and pleaded with her to let it go. Yet she went to the courthouse on the day of the trial anyway to see how she could help. Peering through the door, she glimpsed the warlord, flanked by two bodyguards, towering menacingly over the frail boy. Fear overcame her and, recalling her husband’s warning, she left. To this day she tells me the boy’s scared eyes remain etched in her memory and she still wonders whether she should have intervened. To empathize so deeply that you feel a stranger’s deepest pain and to grapple with intractable paradoxes and excruciating “what ifs”; this too is wild.

Recently, I visited my hometown in Italy after a two-year absence and the day I arrived an old classmate invited me to attend a play he was performing in called “Memories of a Dreamer.” Despite my jetlag, I decided to go because I was craving creativity. Afterwards, the theater’s founder Enrico stopped me to ask what I thought of the play and we started chatting. It turned out that we agreed theater should be widely accessible because it is a means of better understanding our society and coping with its challenges. I told him about my experience with Thair and his relatives, how just that day on the plane I’d been thinking about how the arts could help the social integration of refugees in Europe. Our conversation stimulated an idea to form a theater company composed of refugees living in Italy. Enrico recognized that the questions running through the minds of refugees—Who am I? Where am I from? To be or not to be? How do I persevere after losing everything, including my identity?—are fundamentally human and therefore common to us all, no matter our circumstances. In creating this platform for refugees to tell their own stories to Italian citizens, he hoped to bridge the divide between “us” and “them.” It is a wild idea to embrace the impossible by transforming reality through sheer will.

For global nomads like myself, it is essential to understand that your identity is the product of all the choices you’ve ever made. It has been shaped by each place you’ve lived, each person you’ve entangled with. In my case, a pivotal decision was to take a gap year in Berlin after graduating from high school in Italy despite my family’s resistance. I wanted to learn German so I could indulge my passion for German philosophy reading Nietzsche and Marx in their original language. I never intended to stay for five years and complete my undergraduate studies there, nor did I expect that it would lead me to live in Paris, Damascus, Rabat, Amman, Cairo, Baghdad, and New York over the next several years. I believe that wanderlust comes from a soul’s searching for what is real and true. That struggle to let go, to unleash one’s wild side, is a rough journey replete with thunderstorms and earthquakes.

To be wild, ultimately, is to be open to chance encounters that might turn your life around on a dime. For instance, you happen, by coincidence or destiny, to meet a stranger while on a precarious mission to help a mutual friend, and this person speaks exactly the same language as you (despite having different native tongues in the literal sense) and shares your instinct to break the rules in the name of friendship and humanity. When such a bond is forged, it is eternal. There is no turning back because your soul has found what it had been searching for, and that is the wildest thing of all.

This essay originally appeared in the Wild issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Wild issue here or read Overcoming Sexism in Publishing: An Interview with Erin Cox.

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