Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act? ~ St. Francis of Assisi
The recent outcome of the 2016 presidential election has unmoored me. I’m on the losing side. I sit in quiet contemplation in just how to respond. My childlike impulses are brimming. I want to erupt into a wailing temper tantrum. Instead I call to mind an old story.
“Nazi. Nazi. You’re a Nazi.”
The little blond boy pointed at me. I was five years old, standing in the school yard, and very confused.
“Nazi! Your mother’s a Nazi.”
Part of me thought, what’s a notsie?
Is it shoe lace? Is it snot?
But the other part of me knew that he was judging me and I felt that red hot rush of shame.
I turned to him and said, “No she’s not,” and I ran away.
Everyone in our small town knew my mother. Yes, she was German. She was beautiful, impossibly glamorous, with big sunglasses and fancy head scarves of the 1970s. She would spend her days going door to door visiting women at home. She was an Avon Lady.
She worked really hard at it. She had that German work ethic. “Arbeiten über alles.”
Work above all.
When we were little my sister and I would get to go with her. We would show up at people’s houses. I remember sitting there at some lady’s kitchen table, the products spread out all over it, and my mother would take the woman’s hand, and look in her eyes, and softly say, “Your hand is so soft.” She really meant it. The woman would say, “Oh, really?” as if no one had ever said that to her before. Maybe nobody ever had. Then my mom would take the little sample lipsticks and start drawing them on the back of the lady’s hand to check if the shade fit with her complexion.
My mom wasn’t just a salesperson to these women. She was their confidant. She was their counselor. She was their aroma therapist. She talked with them without judgement and with sincerity. We even used to drive around with two boxes in the back of the car. One of them would be the blue Avon product case. Another box would be things that these women might need. A toy that we’d outgrown, an extra dish towel or hand me downs. My mom showed generosity without expectation of return and so people remembered and cherished her.
When I got a little older that bubble burst.
I’m 11 years old, sitting and watching TV and I am completely horrified by what I’m seeing.
There was a PBS special on the German holocaust with pictures of concentration camps. I had heard about the holocaust, of course, in vague bits and pieces. But I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My child brain was trying to work it out. Piles and piles of skeletons. This happened in Germany where my mom came from? While she was there?
My mom came in and I turned to her. “Mommy, how could this happen? Did you know? Why didn’t you do anything?”
My mom was born in 1938. She was only a toddler when all this happened. Her memories are of being shuttled into bomb shelters. But she didn’t tell me that. Instead she just said, “Darling, darling, don’t watch this. It’s too upsetting.” And she hurried out of the room.
I was left there thinking, “Wait? How can she ignore this?”
(Our poor mothers get blamed for everything…)
I thought, “If I learned about this and I lived there, I would have been fighting. It’s so simple.”
A few years after that I’m sitting nervously in social studies class. I’m carefully drawing lines and arrows and neatly writing names in the gaps underneath them. We’re creating our family trees and it was so confusing. My dad had left and was out of the picture. I didn’t know anything on his side other than they were a bunch of Scots and I knew about some cousins on the West coast. I try to fill in what I know from my mom’s side. Oma and Opa and Tantes and Onkels. I was the odd girl out. In my class there were Italian Americans and Irish Americans, but not a lot of German Americans. Then suddenly this one kid next to me pipes up and says,
Your family is German? Were they Nazis?
Immediately, I turn my back to him and say, “No!” But I feel that red hot rush of shame. I knew my family members were not Nazis, but they were there at the time.
Later, I have a chance to go the source. In college I spent a work-study year in Germany, spending time with relatives and touring cities and villages with classmates. We visit Dachau, a concentration camp outside of Munich.
Tumbling out of the bus, I find myself standing in this yard and looking at rows and rows of empty buildings. I feel almost frozen with inability to take in what is around me.
We moved inside and saw images of prisoners of war, of hair, and gold teeth fillings. If I had thought that it was shocking watching that PBS documentary that was nothing compared to the way I felt now. Dachau was this cavernous, quiet place. It was incomprehensible that so much killing had happened at this camp, tucked away in the beautiful Bavarian countryside.
Later, when I visited my aunts and my uncles, I would ask them, “What did you do when this was happening?” They would say to me, “It’s history. Leave it alone.” Then I would hang with my cousins and Deutsche friends in the pubs and biergartens and I would say, “Ich kann es nicht verstehen.” I just don’t understand it.
We don’t want to talk about it. We weren’t there. It’s not our burden.
I felt angry. I judged them. Because in my mind it was important not to forget history. Otherwise, it might happen again. This is so simple!
Eventually, I went to grad school, started a family, and I became a therapist. As with most therapists starting out, when you’re young and green, you get assigned to the most challenging patients and heartbreaking situations: people with psychiatric disorders and people who have experienced trauma beyond anything I could have previously imagined, things I don’t know if I could have survived. I was assigned to work with patients who were my own age with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or OCD. I saw first hand that we’re thrown into lives and situations and we don’t get a choice about it. And I also saw that some patients began their healing in whatever ways they could. They showed resistance, courage, and traces of self-compassion and resilience — even in the face of things they could not entirely change.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor. E. Frankl
But it’s really not so simple, is it?
Not so long ago and many decades after first being called a Nazi in the playground, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
I’m standing in front of a pile of shoes. Women’s shoes, men’s boots, children’s shoes. I look at faded photos of families on walls spanning a few stories high. There are passbooks. I read their names and where they lived. So many people.
It’s a walking timeline into catastrophe. It is like being trapped in a maze, a life-sized diorama cramped with other tourists where the air becomes increasingly thick and the mood ominous. I feel the weight, the enormity of it, but I feel something different as well. It’s that Arbeiten uber alles thing — a work ethic gone entirely mad.
Unlike the eerie quiet of Dachau, this exhibit was designed with no way out but through and with eyes wide open. Here one is faced with the stunning capability of the human imagination to devise assembly lines of murder and orchestrate a culture of hate.
It’s odd how sometimes that there can be one detail that makes you crumble.
For me it was seeing the illustrated children’s books, written for malleable minds. Children’s stories that planted seeds of fear and disgust of the Jews, the gypsies, and the disabled.
By this time in my life I had plenty of knowledge of this scar in human history. I read books. I watched movies. My graduate colleagues had written dissertations about intergenerational effects of the German Holocaust. I also devoured stories of resistance, abeit a weak salve. The story about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement, gave me some hope. These brave souls chose to believe that the world could be a just, benevolent place, and they insisted on calling upon humankind’s better nature for compassion, kindness, morality, and hope. They were caught and executed.
For so many years I felt like I would have stood up. Yet, I wondered. Would I? Could I?
Probably not. I think of my mother. A German immigrant, who fled her homeland at age 19 by herself (the very age my oldest daughter is now), carrying the weight of cultural shame, and all I had to contend with was schoolyard children who didn’t know any better.
I think about how she chose kindness and compassion. The items that she would give away when we went on those Avon house calls. It wasn’t because she was rich. It was just the opposite, we were on food stamps. My dad left us bankrupt. She was glamorous and lovely because she always worked so hard to make her secondhand clothes look good and sew dresses for us girls. To put food on the table. To make our life beautiful. To a make ladies feel beautiful by selling sweet scents door to door.
Maybe it’s that Arbeiten ethic after all. A work ethic fueled by fierce love.
We are all capable of love and hate, of kindness and cruelty. And we can go to great lengths for either.
The truth is: It does take work to be kind and compassionate. To nurture our better selves. Anything with a purpose takes effort. And as I have learned, a part of that also means to stop judging others. To learn to accept that you can’t always see the reasons behind who people are, and why they do what they do, or don’t do… because those reasons aren’t always so simple.
This is particulary relevant this past week’s election results. I find myself on the side of a new form of resistance. To be sure, there’s much work ahead. As George Saunders said, “Kindness, it turns out, is hard.”