If it’s true — and I think it is — that life always includes a measure of pain, then the past week has shown me two very different responses to that harsh truth.
I’m involved in overlapping projects — finishing a novel and starting on a private memoir for a client. While fact-checking the last draft of the novel, I exchanged e-mails with a representative of a Native American tribe that will remain nameless. The novel’s road trip moves through Indian land, and the narrator uses that opportunity to talk about the wholesale slaughter that took place there in the name of “expansion” or “settlement.” Since it’s a story, in part, about different approaches to spirituality, I wanted to get a handle on the spiritual ideas of two particular tribes.
What I received in response to my sincere inquiry was: “This is something you’ll never understand” and “All representations of Indian spirituality are grossly tainted by the assumptions of the dominant culture.” Basically: You’re going to get it wrong no matter what you do. Included in these exchanges were some snippy comments like “say your Hail Mary before reading this.”
The private memoir is for a Jewish man who escaped the Nazis as a teenager in Austria and whose parents were later killed. In both cases, the inhumanity is so extreme as to be past describing: Humiliation, torture, genocide, the theft of land and property, dehumanization on a vast scale.
But this man’s response to the horrors visited upon his people has not been to say, “You’ll never understand our pain,” but to spend the rest of his life working not just for Jewish victims, but for a variety of besieged human beings — from African Americans who wanted fair access to education, to Chileans and Soviets hoping to escape repressive regimes, to Native Americans who were living in awful conditions. Without glossing over the terror and injustice of his youth, he goes out of his way to mention those non-Jews who were kind to him.
Obviously, in this space I can’t do justice to the enormous complexity of the two holocausts. But, coming as they did in the same week, my interactions with these two men illuminated strikingly different responses to injustice. I’ve seen the same range of response among women, homosexuals, and African-Americans, and among my own Italian-American friends. To greater and smaller degrees, all those groups were the target of bigotry. Some victims, and some members of the succeeding generations respond with what seems to me reverse-bigotry, using their very real wounds as justification for a closed mindedness that mimics, with superb irony, the ways of their abusers.
The best example I can think of is an Italian-American acquaintance in Revere who mocked members of the city’s Cambodian population for the way they spoke, the kinds of food they ate, and their large families. Utterly lost on him was the fact that eerily similar comments had once been used to belittle his own grandparents. The pain had been passed down through the generations, as pain always is, but, instead of bringing out the compassion in him, it brought out the bitterness. I know women who accuse men (or that hideous tribe “white males”) of causing all the world’s ills. I’ve read about African-Americans who believe that getting a good education is a “white” idea. The Indian activist Russell Means, who died this week, said, “Sometimes you have to use violence, to get the white man to listen.” Given the pain of the past — and sometimes the present — those responses aren’t surprising. At the same time, they’re a prescription for further divisiveness, more hatred.
Yes, sometimes the line between righteous anger and self-indulgent victimhood can be difficult to find. And yes, over the centuries, a quiet acceptance of societal wrongs has too often led only to their perpetuation. Where would the world be without Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Andrei Sakharov, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama? They all fought against oppression, but while they had good reason to hate and separate themselves off from others, they chose instead a compassionate engagement.
The poet W.H. Auden wrote “Those to whom evil is done / do evil in return.” To those famous lines I’d add this footnote: “Not always.”