Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Dahau Survivor and the Keynote Speaker

Most people do not easily forgive when they have been hurt. Resentment makes it difficult. Hatred makes it almost impossible. We feel justified in thinking things such as, “If I forgive you for what you did, it implies that what you did was not so bad. But, since what you did was wrong and hurtful, I will not forgive you.”

To resist forgiving is to rationalize the withholding of your love, abilities, and gifts. When you fail to forgive, you may or may not hurt the other person … but you definitely damage yourself.

Behold the magnificent apple tree, which never says … “I only give my apples to the deserving.” Regardless of the reason, we know that an apple tree which stops bearing fruit is dying. Similarly, a human who stops giving love is also dying. We die emotionally at first, but eventually the rest of the body follows.

Negative reactions triggered by your resentment are Fear-Based. It does not matter if your reasons are important or petty, real or perceived; to do so means you have made a decision to allow others to run your life … because of fear. The fact you can rationalize the behavior only proves you would not otherwise have acted in such a manner. In other words, when you react to your fears, the negative circumstance is in control … not you.

Hate begets hate. Hating the haters is not the answer, for you have already chosen to emulate them in your own way. Comic-pianist, Tom Lehrer, said it best when he jokingly proclaimed, “I know there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

Forgiveness does not mean you condone the hurtful actions of another person. It does mean that you have decided that those actions are not going to control you. Choosing to forgive when the conditions are hurtful, especially when you are tempted to react with hate, is true self-control.

When you forgive, you are 'giving forth' love. Obviously, the person you are resenting benefits when you forgive, simply because you are not striving to hurt them back. More significantly, however, you benefit when you forgive. Clearly the person who hurt you did not create the forgiveness … you created it. As such, to forgive another is to stay in charge of your self.

Victims react BECAUSE of problems. Visionaries forgive IN SPITE of them. Mother Teresa created peace and love in Calcutta. You and I have created turmoil at birthday parties. The question is; can we do better?

A True Story

In 1982, I attended a lecture in Evanston, Illinois. The events of that evening had a profound impact on my view of the power of forgiveness.

The speaker was famous for his forgiveness messages, so most of the people in attendance were already supportive of this topic. It promised to be an inspirational evening for people who were, at least conceptually, quite open to his ideas. This was not a hostile crowd.

An impromptu survey of several people revealed I was one of the few in the audience who had not read any of the speaker’s books. To remedy this situation, I went to the lobby and bought one. Perhaps, I thought, I might even be able to get it autographed.

The speaker came out to a rousing ovation, and spoke on the power of love and forgiveness for more than an hour. He had us in tears one moment, then laughing a few minutes later. He spoke beautifully and effortlessly. Everyone was having a marvelous time.

Firmly he stated messages such as, “You have to forgive your enemies. You have to forgive family members who've hurt you. Forgiveness is the key to peace and happiness.” People were practically cheering. So far, so good.

“You have to forgive strangers who've stepped on your toes, or even accosted you,” he continued to even more applause. “And you must forgive yourself for the people you've hurt.” We loved that one.

The speaker was on a roll and we responded with continued applause and cheering until he said something rarely heard in a public address. He said, “In fact, the Jews will never be free until they forgive Hitler.”

Our celebration of good feelings hit a wall, and there was an abrupt silence. You could hear a collective gasp of disbelief at what had just been spoken, followed by an “explosion” of vehemence, the likes of which I have never witnessed.

Almost as he said, “In fact, the Jews will never be free until they forgive Hitler”, a tiny woman in the third or fourth row stood up and started screaming at him. Her tirade was a mixture of profanity, insults, and tears. It was quite difficult to decipher, but what I could understand sent a chill down my spine.

It became apparent that she was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp. It was clear her hatred for Nazis would not tolerate any attempt to diminish her resentment and loathing.

She lived in nearby Skokie. Many survivors of concentration camps settled in this community after World War II. There were probably several other Holocaust survivors in the audience, and many of their children. This was not the place to say, “In fact, the Jews will never be free until they forgive Hitler”.

For several minutes, she spat her hatred at the speaker, and then literally collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of the people sitting next to her. For a moment it appeared she had actually died. Fortunately she had not, but she was totally spent.

I had been watching the speaker during her attack. Never had I seen a man so naked before. He just stood there and took it. You could see the depth of compassion on his face. I watched him struggle to find something, anything, to say to her.

I wager that he wanted to come down off the stage and embrace her and tell her he was sorry for what he said. But, he knew the truth. Her hatred of Nazis was killing her.

He knew this woman really needed to forgive for her own sake. However, any response on his part, “Hating the Nazis is killing you”, or “Forgiveness is divine”, would sound like empty platitudes, and he knew it. He really had nowhere to go.

Then, I heard someone crying. This was the only sound in the theatre of stunned observers, and it began to attract attention.

A young man was standing and weeping. For a few moments I wondered about what he might do. Finally, he spoke through his tears … with a thick German accent. If I live to be a thousand, I hope I never forget what he said that evening.

He began softly and with compassion. “Ma’am. Nobody has a right to hate more than you do. I can't imagine the horrors you've lived through. I can't imagine how anyone could treat another human in the ways you and others were treated. What makes it worse for me, however, is you are literally speaking of my parents and grandparents. It shames me as a German. Nobody has a right to hate more than you do.”

“But,”
and he pointed at the speaker and continued quite firmly, “you must listen to this man. I have been having the Holocaust shoved down my throat since I was a child. I have been made to feel guilty and responsible. It has made me angry because I was not alive when those atrocities occurred.”

“I am not alone,” he continued. “Thousands, perhaps millions of other young Germans are fed up with being judged for acts that were committed by others. If it keeps up, they will react. You did not deserve to be treated the way you were treated, and we have not deserved to be made to feel guilty for it. Keep on hating … Hitler would approve.”

With that, he made his way through the crowd toward the woman. When he reached her, they embraced. The speaker visibly sighed with relief.

I watched as people reached in to hug the people, who were hugging the people, who were hugging the two of them. I would have given anything to be a part of that hug, but I was too far away. However, the speaker was being ignored. So I went up on stage, and had him autograph my copy of his book. I really did.

Finally, he got everyone to take their seats and spoke some beautiful words, bringing closure to what we had all witnessed. However, I knew it was the words of this young man I would always remember …

“Keep on hating ... Hitler would approve.”

1 Comments:

Blogger Wendy Angel said...

It's difficult to try and add to that one simple statement :"keep on hating--Hitler would approve"... it's poignantly didactic, and is a powerful historical example of one of my favorite sayings "I'm only as big as the smallest thing it takes to piss me off".
It amazes me how bitter-sweet hatred is...but no matter how comfortable hating is, the liberty of forgiveness is a truly sacred feeling.

Thanks for sharing, Ross.

Monday, 27 February, 2006  

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