What Have You Done For Humanity Today?

Benjamin_Ferencz

I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be  repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.

Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.

Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.

Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.

Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.

Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.

Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world. 

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The Tower

Beefeater

In the heart of London along the River Thames lies one of the most extraordinarily historical places in London. Known as the Tower, it is a complex of buildings dominated by a white castle built by William the Conqueror shortly after the battle of Hastings in 1066. It is an impressive fortification with its moat, narrow winding staircases, and vast rooms. It was originally designed both as a home for the king and a defensive keep. Over time it became better known for the prisoners that were held on the premises and the executions that took place on the green. It is an imposing and improbable complex whose elevations seem both in and out of place in the modern world.

Some time ago I learned that my lineage can be traced back to William the Conqueror and from there to Vikings. I suppose that such is a somewhat dubious honor given that the Norman king was so often resented by the people of England who saw him as a bloodthirsty outsider. Nonetheless his legacy in creating the famous white tower remains as a reminder of the often violent and dangerous history of Britain.

What was once designed as living quarters for the first Norman king has evolved over time in its use, and now stands as a museum and respository of many stories. Visiting the Tower of London is perhaps the most fascinating tour in all of the city, complete with legends about the ravens who have lived on the premises for most of its existence. It is said that as long as they remain Britain will not fall and great efforts are made to keep them happy and willing to stay as permanent residents of the compound.

Countless mysteries and tragedies unfolded in the Tower. Richard II, the protector of his child king nephew, took both the little monarch and his brother there for safe keeping, but they subsequently disappeared thereby leaving the throne to him. Years later when the bones of two children were found buried under a set of stairs it was conjectured that they must have belonged to the long missing brothers. 

It was in that Tower that Anne Boleyn awaited her tragic fate once Henry VIII had decided that she was no longer of use to him. Later she would be publicly executed for treason on the grounds. Lady Jane Grey would serve as Queen for nine days after Henry’s son James died without an heir, and then lose her life when Mary I laid claim to the throne by right of being Henry’s eldest daughter. Elizabeth I would also spend time imprisoned in the Tower but was luckily spared a death penalty and eventually given the throne. Other famous prisoners like Sir Walter Raleigh spent years behind the walls as condemned persons before being put to death.

One of the most interesting areas of the Tower complex is a building in which prisoners left graffiti on the walls. Over time they meticulously carved intricate signs that they had been there. These were no ordinary scrawlings, but rather beautifully carved inscriptions left in the stone for all time. They told of the long days of isolation that the captives had to endure and their determination to leave their mark on history in spite of their wretched conditions.

The Tower complex also features a sampling of the crown jewels including the largest known diamond in the world. It displays goblets and plates of gold, as well as jeweled crowns and scepters. It is a remarkable showcase that points to the wealth of the monarchy and the traditions that have both evolved and continued over time.

A tour of the Tower grounds includes a rather jolly session with a Beefeater who reveals the history, the stories and the secrets of the complex. The Beefeaters live and work inside the Tower walls and provide visitors with an in depth detail of information. Our particular guide had a rather wicked sense of humor that added to the interest of his tales. He provided a voice to the people who had lived and worked and even died in that fascinating place.

The history of the world is one of violence and tragedy as people fought to gain and retain power. Their’s was not so much a fairytale as a story of intrigue, jealousies, and betrayals. Perceived treason brought imprisonment and death. Choosing sides carried dangers for both noble men and women as well as the common folk. The walls of the Tower of London indeed seem to talk of the fears and horrors of real people who either fought to maintain a hold on their power or suffered because they appeared to be threats. The chronicles of lives celebrated and lost are written in the very stone of this place. There is something majestic, awe inspiring, frightening and evil about what happened within at the Tower making the ravens that act as sentinels seem an appropriate symbol of both the ingenuity and the flaws of humankind.

I left the Tower of London in a rather pensive state of mind. It is a glorious edifice that is a remarkable reminder of the steadfastness and resilience of our humanity, but it is also a respository of our imperfect natures. It is a place where we should surely learn the lessons that history attempts to teach us. Our time on this earth is short in the grand scheme of the universe. The possessions that we accumulate are unworthy of our focus. We will all soon enough become ashes but our actions while still on this earth will have far reaching consequences. Let us hope that we have made good choices and demonstrated honor and integrity rather than greed. The history of mankind is littered with far too much hatred. It is our duty to work toward the good insofar as possible. Power comes and goes and too often corrupts, as we humans continue to work toward a more perfect union of our differences. 

You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.

Wisdom, Prayers, and a Pot of Soup

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The day on which I am writing this blog is rainy, a situation that I might normally find to be peaceful and comforting. On this occasion it simply feels dreary and sad because a dear friend is dealing with great loss that she must not only bear, but which she must explain to her children. She is a strong woman and I have little doubt that she will ultimately rise from the ashes of her life, but I know from experience how crushingly cruel such interludes in time can be.

It is part of our human experience to encounter tragedies, some of which are life changing. We react to such events in a multitude of ways, perhaps turning to prayer or leaning on people who are close to us. Sometimes we attempt to go it alone, mustering as much courage as we can find inside our souls. Regardless of how we choose to react we feel great pain, often both mental and physical. For lack of a better description I have called it “the elephant sitting on my chest.” Tragedy makes it difficult to even breath or move. There is a tendency to want to stay in bed and shut out the world, but we all know that such reactions do not work forever. Eventually we must straighten our backs and bear the weight until we heal enough to feel somewhat normal. Sadly we will carry scars from our experiences for all time, but if we are lucky they will only hurt now and again.

What can we do to help someone who is in the throes of such an experience? It is difficult to know, but I think we must try. In my own lifetime very small gestures done with love have provided me with the hope that I needed to continue my journey as a human. The help has often come from the most unexpected places, but it has always occurred at just the right moment when my despair was overwhelming me.

I still carry the vision of my Aunt Valeria puttering around our kitchen on the day my father died. She represented a kind of stability on the shaky ground that I felt all around me. My Uncle William gave me hope on that day with an ice cream cone offered as a sign that he truly cared about me and my brothers. A lovely plant sent to me by my dear friend, Adriana, on the occasion of my mother’s death still grows in my home. She sent it with a simple note that reminded me that I had done all that was possible for my mom. I needed to hear that, and somehow she knew. Another friend, Linda, brought me a big pot of chicken soup when I was hurting from surgery. Somehow that soup tasted better than anything that I had ever eaten.

Often it is a stranger who brings us comfort. I once went to a doctor that I had never before seen for a yearly physical. He was supposed to spend thirty minutes outlining my health issues in a post conference. He laughed because the test results showed that I was in excellent shape, so he wondered aloud what we might speak about to fill the time. He innocently asked if anything was pressing on my mind. At the moment I was gravely worried about my mother’s bipolar disorder, and also wondering if I was doing the right things for her. In many ways I was filled with guilt that I was not doing enough. He assuaged all of my negative feelings and encouraged me to begin talking openly about the situation. He was so engaged in my situation that the conference lasted for over an hour, and I ended up releasing tears that had been pent up in my heart for years. I have thought back on him over and over again with so much gratitude because he freed me from the worry that had overwhelmed me for so long.

A fellow teacher once prayed with me for my grandchildren who were threatening to be born far too early. The predictions of their health if they came were dire. My dear colleague calmed me and assured me that she would be storming the heavens with pleas for a miracle. Somehow in spite of the frightening warnings from the doctors my daughter’s labor stopped, and the babies stayed safely inside her womb for enough weeks to insure that their problems would be minimal. The teacher who so understood my panic has remained in my gratitude for sixteen years as I have watched those little ones grow into beautiful and bright teenagers.

When my husband, Mike, had a stroke there were so many souls praying for him and for our family. The doctors and nurses who cared for him were not just knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate. Our friends and many of my former students sent messages of encouragement that sustained us. When hurricane Harvey hit Mike was still highly susceptible to having another episode. As the waters rose and our home became like an island I worried about what I would do if he had another attack. In the darkest moment of my anxiety a former student, Bieu, texted to assure me that if anything happened he would come with help in his big truck, and that together we would get Mike to the hospital. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt upon receiving that message. Luckily nothing occurred, but I will always and forever love Bieu for his empathy at just the right moment.

Someone you know may be suffering for one reason or another. You may not think that there is much that you may do to help them, but it is in the simple acts of compassion that they will regain their strength and have the courage to soldier on. Don’t hesitate to offer your wisdom. your prayers, or a pot of soup. Your efforts may be exactly what that person needs. You may make the very difference that will sustain them.

As Unique As A Star

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One of  my former students posted a meme that really struck a chord with me. It went something like this, “How cool is it that the same God who made mountains, and lakes and galaxies thought that the world needed one of you as well.” Indeed every single person is as special and unique as a star or a snowflake or any other of the Lord’s inventions. Some shine a bit more in the world’s eyes, but even the most private and unknown individual has someone who loves and appreciates him/her as deeply as does the Creator.

I suppose that one of the things that makes me the most sad is when a person forgets that he/she is loved. I realize that depression is often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and requires more than just tender loving care to combat, but I also wonder how we can assure the people for whom we care that they need never feel alone.

Teens are particularly susceptible to such severe sadness that they too often decide to kill themselves to ease the pain that they are feeling. We know that they are sometimes subjected to hormonal changes and bullying behaviors that tear down their confidence and sense of worth. The question is how to reach them before they become self destructive, or even worse violent toward others.

We’ve seen far too many instances of our young people losing all hope. Often they have hidden their feelings from even those closest to them, but in most cases there are clues that should cause us not just to worry, but to take some form of action. Sadly our general knowledge of mental health is sorely lacking, and the resources that we need are often not available. When we add stigmas and misconceptions along with mind altering drugs to the problems we are looking at a volatile cocktail that poses the distinct danger of not ending well. 

In my care taking of my mother and my work as a teacher I was continually frustrated by a system that is more likely to launch into debates about guns than to consider the root causes of the mental illness that leads young people to a state of hopelessness. A psychiatrist once told me that we spend more money on our pets and our diets than we do on treating mental problems. Families who attempt to get necessary help for a loved one are often thwarted at every turn.

There was a recent case of a young woman who was threatening schools with violence. She had become obsessed with the shootings at Columbine High School and indicated that she was going to do something as spectacularly violent. Her saga ended in her own suicide which  provided some relief for those who were fearful of what she might do, but I was disturbed by the fact that she had somehow been allowed to reach this point at all. It is difficult to understand why those who knew that she was out of her mind, had not been able to get her the treatment that she needed before she resorted to such extreme actions. In a proper world there would have been no question that she was in dire need of care. If she had shown symptoms of a heart disease or diabetes she would have been hospitalized, but we generally have a very different attitude toward mental illness.

I would love to see the day come when celebrities host telethons to raise money for mental health. I would be thrilled to witness research projects focusing as much on cures for depression as for cancer. Surely we must see that such diseases of the brain are as painful and horrific as those that affect the other parts of our bodies. Good psychiatrists and therapists should be as honored and funded as cardiologists. Each person’s well being must be top priority. We need to find better ways of insuring mental health.

We have a tendency to look away from the mentally ill person who is living under a bridge or begging on a street corner. We don’t want to hear about the family member who is struggling with anxieties or sadness. We think that a diagnosis of mental illness is akin to treatment by voodoo or witch doctors. We simply don’t want to face the reality that so many are suffering from illnesses that should be treatable if only we had the will to make it so. Until we change we can take away guns and drugs and sharp objects and there will be some so seriously intent on violence to themselves or others that they will still find ways to carry out their missions.

We start conversations about mental illness, but rarely finish them. We pay lip service to finding comfort and cures for families that deal with such things, but then quickly forget to follow through. We can have conferences and send out a few million dollars to help, but until we get very serious about such issues the violence that we see so often will not go away. We will lose too many of our loved ones to the overwhelming sadness that makes them forget how special they are and how much they are loved. It’s way past time for making this a top priority. Every one of us is worth the efforts that we must mount.