It is good to say ‘never forget’ when it comes to atrocities of the past. Auschwitz Liberation 70 years ago. Don’t ever tell victims to forget it and move on, for in remembering we leave the next generation that much safer.
So I wrote on my Facebook page earlier this week. A lot of thought was packed into that short paragraph, much more than is good for a Facebook post.
My statement has received numerous “likes”. What I really enjoyed were the comments that followed, including those that disagreed or pushed back.
“As long as our remembering comes wrapped in forgiveness, not bitterness,” responded one and echoed another, to which I replied: “I wonder if those are the only two options.”
Perhaps they were thinking of how survivors should move on, but my thought about other options was actually in another direction. What should be the response of those who did not themselves suffer the trauma, for which forgiveness and bitterness are not primary concerns?
How do we who are neither Nazi nor survivor respond? I have nothing against contemporary Germans or Germany, but I too must never forget what happened in that far off place a few years before I was born. (And neither should they, the Nazis’ or survivors’ descendants, by the way.)
My purpose in remembering is not because I cannot forgive or I am bitter, for neither applies to me when it comes to the Holocaust. Remembering – and in remembering, understanding – helps assure that such awfulness never happens again.
What feelings should“innocent” bystanders have? Should they ignore the cries for remembrance? If not, how should they honor the memories, dreadful as they may be?
And what if the pain is closer to home? Wrote a friend, “When September comes each year and the 11th of the month rolls around, I see endless ‘We will never forget’ messages. What I ‘hear’ is ‘We will never let our pain go and we will keep trying to get revenge’. What is it that will not ever be forgotten, the wrong committed or the wrong endured?”
I get what she is driving at, the danger we as a nation face – or any community or individual surviving trauma – in not being willing to let go of grudges. Which is what a former school teacher of mine was getting at when she wrote, “As I recall fond memories and the many blessings over the years, then the ugly, hurtful experiences seem to fade in comparison. This reminds me of a quote, ‘Sometimes we bury the hatchet but leave the handle exposed.’”
This caution against wallowing in painful memories is valid. Bitterness is self-destructive. So writes Laura Hilenbrand in Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. As captivating as it is long, Unbroken explores the harrowing experiences faced by an American soldier/POW in the war with Japan.
Louie Zamperini, the story’s here, struggles with a barbaric captor, a man the POWs call “Bird”. Louie wants to unleash on Bird all the pain Bird has unleashed on him – and that pain is mountainous. Writes Hillenbrand, “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”
There is the toxic, fatal pill of bitterness. But if I have learned anything from my own recovery, it is that one has to face the pain before one can begin to forgive. You can’t just move on to forgiveness without going through a lot of processing and that processing cannot be turned out like American fast-food style delivery.
Thus I appreciated the healthy caution on my Facebook thread from Kristi Kernal, a friend who works with adult victims of child sexual abuse. “Red flags pop up for me when I hear concerns about ‘bitterness’ with remembrance. I’ve seen that card played once too often with attempts to silence and shame victims of atrocities, who have every right to be heard and have their pain/loss and subsequent anger (bitterness?) acknowledged.”
“Perhaps through that listening and acknowledgement on ‘our’ part,” she continued, “we can help our wounded brothers and sisters mend and heal, and not get stuck in a place of continuous pain, grief and sorrow that oftentimes can look like bitterness to those of us who can sometimes err on the side of being more concerned about people’s bitterness than their healing.” (emphasis added)
I really get this providing space for others to voice their pain. Much like grieving, there is no limit on the process of working through it, something outsiders tend to rush.
I have friends who have recently faced that most horrible of losses, outliving your own child. They cry out, let me process this on my own terms, at my own speed, and come out in my own place. What they also ask for is an opportunity to be listened out, to be accepted in their state of grief.
But then came this response on my Facebook thread from the other direction. “I’ve seen bitterness used ‘once too often’ to try to justify get-even-ism in later generations.” I hear my friend as one who must heed his own words to listen to a cry for understanding in pain. There is pain in these words “once too often,” pain crying to be allowed to come out, even though it might sound politically incorrect.
To which Kristi responded: “I wonder how we can help facilitate healing for those [who “use bitterness”]….I personally would rather be a healing facilitator than one who labels wounded people as ‘bitter’.”
“And would I,” came back the reply. “However, I’m sick and tired of suffering the ire of people that I did not ‘wound’.”
I must admit when I read this what my supersensitized ears hear him saying is, Don’t throw racism in my face. Whether or not race was “Sick and Tired’s” focus, such words are used by those who don’t like racism being spoken of in polite society. They don’t want to go through the awful struggle to right past wrongs, regardless of who was at fault. They just want to move on unencumbered by community’s baggage.
As this Facebook conversation was playing out by people scattered around the globe, I attended a monthly gathering centered on racial reconciliation, where whites and blacks share thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. I’ve always been sensitive to matters of race, overly sensitive some have said. It is the curse of the gift of empathy, I have been told by others. Perhaps, for better or worse, it is just an intercultural skill honed over a lifetime of encounters and research.
As I sat listening to my black and white brothers and sisters share their hearts, I recognized the pain of “suffering the ire of people I did not wound”. I also recognized the pain of those who are told to get a ladder and get over it, even as they are wounded anew and by those who speak without recognizing the venom in their own words. Somehow on this tiny planet, we cannot escape each other, the wounded, the “wounders”, and those who sincerely believe they don’t have a dog in the fight.
“I’m sick and tired of being blamed for something I didn’t do,” he was saying. I understand. I too have been blamed for things I didn’t do – as a child, as a parent, as a leader, as an employee, as a member of society. I could say something stupid like “I’m sick and tired of hearing you are sick and tired.” But since my goal in engaging Facebook friends is to encourage us to learn from each other, I thought about how that statement applies in different contexts, not just the racial one that was coming immediately to my mind.
“So,” I asked, “I wonder, should we stop commemorating the anniversaries of horrors such as the concentration camps of Nazi Germany?” This was, after all, the point of my original post.
To which another friend responded with profound simplicity: “I remember.”
Unfortunately, the thread ended there and we never went further with these thoughts.
Meanwhile over on the private messaging side of Facebook, a friend was asking if I wished to delete comments on the public thread that countered my points of view. I explained to her that I learn a lot by such interaction, and so don’t mind them at all. The only responses I don’t like are those where people put each other down, using ad hominemarguments, for example, something that wasn’t happening in this particular conversation.
As she and I listened to the public discussion, I privately encouraged her to watch the way I was dealing with challenging comments. I never got my original question answered, I explained, the one about “are those the only two options?” But if the thread keeps going, I said, I’ll come back to it. It didn’t, so I never did – until now.
Meanwhile I wanted to uncover the thought behind the urge to get people to move on. Do these comments about “getting over it” apply only in certain situations or across the board? Does our appeal to “move on” fit the Holocaust as well as the tragedy of black victimization in America and the trauma of child sexual abuse. If they apply only selectively, then something else is at play. Wounded are wounded. Victims are victims.
I sense that selectivity at work when people who say “never forget” in one setting appeal to others to “get over it” in another. We often fail to extend to others what we wish for ourselves. Which is perhaps why all the great religions of the world share the principle we know as the Golden Rule. This principle reminds us that we are at our best when we treat others as we wish to be treated. How eloquent to say in each and every setting, “I remember.”
As Kristi told me, “I don’t think we can afford to forget, Howard. For me, I find that remembering the ‘big’ ones keeps me awake and alert to maybe the lesser, but still important ones that are occurring in our day.”
I’m just glad we all had the conversation, both the global one on Facebook and the one locally where blacks and whites sat together honestly and safely. These conversations are all too rare these days.
Perhaps my friend on the private messaging summed it up best when she wrote me, “I love your posts. I rarely agree.”