I attended another seminar at Not-So-Local University last week, and my brain has been working nonstop ever since.
The workshop was titled “Rescue and the Righteous” and was put on by fellows from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. The focus was mainly on character education; the concept being that rescuers during the Holocaust possessed at least one of eight qualities – courage, integrity, ingenuity, compassion, moral leadership, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility – that allowed them to behave the way they did.
As a group, we talked about how people can, in times of trouble, be placed into one of several categories – perpetrator, enabler, bystander, victim, or rescuer (though “fighter” or “resister” didn’t come into that list) – about how people make choices that lead them to embody those labels and about how they can choose to move between them. We discussed the idea that it is often a profound thing to stand up against a seemingly overwhelming force, and how much we admire those who do that. We talked about how vital it is that our students be given an opportunity to move from thought and refection about these things to action and actualization in their own lives, whether that be through volunteerism or simply taking the time to listen to someone tell their own stories.
What has been coming back to me, again and again over the past several months, is the idea that much of our human experience is dictated by our capacity for empathy. One of the discussion topics touched on in the workshop – though not developed to my satisfaction and is, consequently, the thinking that’s keeping my brain so busy – was whether or not rescuers during the Holocaust were somehow “extra-human.” Does the need to reach out to others, to speak up against an injustice, require some sort of superhuman trait that most people simply do not have? Can people be forgiven for not standing up in support or defense of their neighbors if the risk to themselves or their families is too high? Are there limits to our capacity to care for each other?
I brought up a story I heard a long time ago about how our actions can change a life: A storm raged during the night and left masses of starfish stranded on the shore. The next morning dawned bright and clear on the receding tide, and the starfish began to dry out and die. A man walking on the beach came upon a little boy industriously tossing starfish back into the waves and commented to the child that there were thousands of starfish in the sand, that he couldn’t possibly make a difference. “Well,” said the boy, tossing another starfish in to the water, “I made a difference to THAT one.”
As a human being, I’m insulted by the idea that it takes an extraordinary power to reach out to another human being. I suspect that the director of the workshop I attended last week was trying to say that, while certainly it takes some fortitude to stand up in dangerous situations, doing so is an essentially human reaction. Believing that compassion and empathy are somehow super-powers is a cop out that many – perhaps most – people use to comfort themselves when they fail to step up and do what their souls know to be right. I understand egocentrism as well as the next person; I get that we are all instinctually looking out for our own survival and best interests. What I don’t accept, what I refuse to accept, is that this is our default position. I am more than certain that most of the problems we face, locally, nationally, globally and spiritually, are rooted in our lack of caring for one another. We love and care for our families and friends, but that caring often does not extend beyond the walls of our own homes. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t look out for strangers. We withhold kindness and compassion. We are estranged from one another. I am guilty of this: of the four houses I can see from my front yard, I only know two of the families who live within. I wave to the neighbors I don’t know, but I couldn’t tell you their names or, really, how many people live in their houses. We humans are disconnected in a very tangible way and, as a result, have an easy time separating ourselves from one another. Their lives don’t concern us. We devolve into “us” and “them”.
The Buddha asked, “if you can see yourself in others, whom can you harm?” I think this is an essential question we should be asking ourselves. More to the point, if we can see ourselves in others, how can we tolerate suffering in those others? Even MORE to the point, if we can see ourselves in others, is there really such a thing as an “other”?
I have found that, in this lifetime, I am interested in human struggles for decency and respect. The plight of the Native Americans. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. The Holocaust. As I continue my study of these turning points in human history, I am brought back, again and again, to the idea that it’s the same fight in different skin.
We humans feel a need to separate ourselves from one another. I believe, with all my being, that this is a need that is entirely contrary to our spirit and that it will, if allowed to continue, bring us about to our ruin. I am working very hard against that. I am trying to be mindful of opportunities to care – to toss back just one starfish – that present themselves in my everyday life. I’m kind to the frazzled check-out girl. I offer assistance when I can see that it might be needed. I talk to the people waiting in line with me at the bank. I give of myself as much as I can (sometimes a little too much), and am trying to teach my children – both biological and academic – to do the same, both through word and example. I may not save a life with my small acts but, then again, I just might. I’m not sure it matters; I think it’s enough to put good, loving energy into the Universe. I truly believe that we can only pull ourselves back from the brink we seem to be racing towards only by caring for each other in real and tangible ways.
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” I’m willing to step up. Are you?