Whatever are we doing?

Whatever are we doing?

As humans, we have a long history of separation. It’s time to make peace with the price we pay for the killing fields.

My memoir has already been written. Myopia, a memoir was published in 2017 by IP Books (International Psychoanalytic Books). When folks ask me if I will write another one, I look at them aghast. If it took me thirty years to write this one, what sacrifices would another one require? I cannot imagine. In any event, my thoughts on that particular topic have been exhausted.

But as I reflect on the changes occurring in this country today, and then ponder the history of the world, I find myself devoting more blogs to the questions that arise for me.

I am first generation here. My father fled from some of the worst pogroms in Russia. The family who stayed behind were all slaughtered in the Second World War.

My mother had a brain aneurism when I was born, and thus she was unable to be my mother for the first three years of my life.

My sister lost both her mother and her home when my father decided to leave Philadelphia for possibly better opportunity. My sister was barely eight years old. She was taken from the doting arms of my mother’s extended family and dropped into a dark and tiny apartment in a strange city. In her first year there, she acquired a squalling baby sister but lost her mother to hospitals and surgeries for the next three years. These experiences are the traumas of everyday life. People move; they get sick; life happens.

A long history of separation

Children are being taken away from their mothers? Not here. Appalling. Inhumane. Unheard of in this country. Let us face facts. This country, much like Australia, was founded mostly by criminals and in violence. Those who did not die were rounded up and moved somewhere else. Native American children were forcefully separated from their families, as were African-American children in the time of slavery, as Jews and gypsies and homosexuals were under the Nazis. We are still doing this today through the imprisonment of these darker-skinned humans by our police and judicial systems.

Have you noticed that the children who are being taken away at the border are various shades of brown and black? I have not seen white families among them. If a white woman from Norway were to be seeking asylum for herself and her children, would they receive the same treatment? I do not know. I have heard tell that President Trump likes Norwegians. Whether we want to face it or not, we, the people, are living with this now.

Perish the thought

I wonder if stretches of time exist in the history of the universe when no group has been targeted for persecution. Have we had any blocks of time like this, when man has been free of scapegoating and bigotry?

Is any of us completely free of some form of bigotry? I remember a time in New York when I needed to speak to an attorney. I asked a friend to recommend someone. When I arrived at my consultation appointment, he came out to greet me and to take me back to his office. He was a nice-looking man in a suit and tie, and he was African-American.

My best friend as a child was African-American. I had dated African-Americans throughout my life and, as we do not like to hear, “some of my best friends” were African-Americans. But I must be honest here. When this lovely, smart man came out to introduce himself to me, my first thought was, I did not know he was black.

By the time we reached his office, I was already whipping myself for having this thought. Would he be as competent as a white lawyer? Me, the civil rights advocate! The woman who marches! How could this be?

This eye-opening incident has continued to hold lifelong meaning for me. We cannot identify what is unconscious until something just like this incident occurs. And even then, we must catch onto the feeling and examine it closely, or what is conscious only momentarily will slip away. We push the negative thoughts away and bury them, since we are “not those kinds of people.”

The lawyer turned out to be very kind to me. He told me that I did not need a lawyer and explained the steps I should take to resolve my situation. Since he recognized that I was another young and penniless New Yorker attempting to survive, he never charged me for the consult. Needless to say, I got more from him than expected and certainly more than I paid for.

The day-to-day inventory of our thoughts

If we are brutally honest with ourselves, these are the day-to-day events that assault us from all sides. How do we view the others in the crowd? What do we experience when we see someone begging on the street? How do we treat an immigrant or a refugee who is asking for help but smells, not because they are dirty people who refuse to bathe, but because they have been walking for days in the only clothing that they were able to take with them?

How many of us ask ourselves this question: If “it” (the “it” being the Holocaust, or any one of the many genocides in history) were to “happen here,” would we risk our lives to save our neighbor from being rounded up and taken away? Would a neighbor save us? This is a question that I believe none of us can answer truthfully unless we have been there before in our own experience. There are fewer heroes than there are cowards. We can see that clearly in our elected officials. Our “checks and balances” system is no longer working.

The price we pay for the killing fields


Photo taken by British officer Cecil A Creber, one month after the U.S. dropped bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima

What do we do about this? We can think. We can face the follies and engage fiercely in grappling with them. The Garden of Eden, in my mind, is simply a metaphor for a lost and unattainable wish. But this essential goodness is what we shoot for while bearing the burdens of knowledge. We must try not to impose, interpret, reject, accept and install an accumulation of only what WE understand to be the absolute truth. And then, from our narrow lenses of reality, to infuse ourselves with all of the influences that tend to confirm our beliefs.

Even as I tap these letters on my keyboard, I wonder how often these words have been said, in millions and even billions of ways, in an assortment of languages, in an assortment of word choices, most more eloquent and poignant than my own?

On mistakes: ‘The thing is not to repeat the same ones’

When I was a small child, my father would emphasize that I should learn from my mistakes. “The thing is not to repeat the same ones,” he would explain. Why do we, as a species, proceed to make the very same mistakes decade after decade, generation after generation, only just having espoused to our children: Never forget. It can’t happen here. Never again. Is it the unfortunate fate of our species to only be able to evolve individually and never as a species?

So, my readers and friends, I sit with this question, and I am quite sure I am not alone. We go to our places of worship. We meditate. We write stories, novels, plays and poetry about the human condition. Psychology tries to scientifically explain human behavior. Sociology, religion, philosophy and psychology attempt to understand human behavior in groups. For thousands of years, man has tried to put his finger on why we do what we do. We possess many theoretical concepts, but we fail to solve our fear and aggression.

And here we are, folks, committing the same atrocities over and over, tearing families apart and ripping children from their mothers and fathers, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Lock her up! Lock him up!” Our theories about human behavior help us little here. We are reduced to packs of animals; then we retreat to our respective groups, howl until we lose our voices, ready to produce the same hate and oppression we feared in the first place. Are we destined to do this until we finally tire of talking and blow ourselves up?

Is there anyone out there?

On the television news, commentators repeat the same commentary for days until some new outrage forces a slight change in the subject matter, but the rhetoric is consistent. This reminds me of black-and-white 1950s science fiction films. The last man left alive picks up a dead phone, or perhaps even one still offering a dial tone. He shouts, “Hello! Is there anyone out there? If you can even hear me, do something to let me know you are there!”

Yes, we want to know there are people out there, but, please, do stay with your own kind. Stay in your own backyard. If you try to knock on my door, you will find yourself in a whole new world of trouble. Unfortunately, and relentlessly, this is also a part of what it means to be human.

When I tried to absorb the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide by reading more about him, I had to wonder if the sense of hopelessness he suffered did not result from the way he welcomed differences, opened himself up to people and stayed curious about them. Yet through his work, the very work many of us fantasized about doing ourselves, he witnessed more inequality of life than most of us are ever privileged to experience. Yes, I drove past the shacks in Johannesburg, but I was not invited to join any of them for dinner.

In Anthony Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit. Minus the drug addiction and the lifestyle, he was someone who, like me, was always eager to try out new foods and to learn about other cultures. When people ask me why I am still writing about Turkey, I tell them that I’ve already written what it was like growing up in the ’50s with a Russian-Jewish refugee father. I understand it. I spent many hours in analysis devoted to the subject. I wish to learn about someone else, to discover what it might be like to be raised as a Muslim, an Eskimo, a Vietnamese. How would I remain the same? How would I be different?

Too much to bear

Life is not fair, nor is it forgiving. We are born into this world in the same way, no matter the color of our skin, female or male, deaf or hearing, blind or sighted, with or without physical or emotional advantages or disadvantages. Depending upon our relative health, the circumstances into which we are born and our temperament, we either seize the opportunity or fail to thrive because opportunity simply does not exist for us in that place or that time.

The human species is blessed with the additional sense of reasoning that supposedly separates us from the animals. But when I observe the animals in their natural habitat, I have to think how well they all manage with their limited means of communication. We use our rhetoric to explain, to justify, to normalize and to obfuscate. Yes, we also use it to understand. And sometimes when we do understand, when we hold the lens up to the other, it is too painful to bear. My guess is that for Anthony Bourdain, it was just too much to bear.

I will miss you, Anthony. I never had the good fortune to meet you, but like so many, I traveled vicariously with you whenever I was able. Perhaps you left us because you could not accept what you may have felt to be inevitable, the destruction man repeatedly brings to himself. Then again, perhaps I am projecting. You might have merely been seeking mercy.

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