I – You
October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Leonard Cohen on the CBC quite a few years ago, where he said that we should never throw anyone away. This is not a perfect world, he said, and if we look at our life through the lens of Biblical history, we can put ourselves in the context of the story of Genesis, and how Adam and Eve first fell from Grace. We are no longer in Paradise, and life is simply not designed to be flawless. We are living in an imperfect world.
My struggle is with how to acknowledge the moral and ethical differences I have with people while holding a love for them in my heart at the same time. My struggle is this: How do I not throw anyone away?
Within most of my relationships, I’ve at one point or another made discoveries that have shocked me. I’ve found out that the person who I thought was standing in front of me had secrets he or she wasn’t telling me, or opinions I didn’t know about. These discoveries sometimes felt like ripples of trauma moving through my body and mind, as I had so badly needed to see these people as flawless, kind, ethical and honest (conforming to my definitions of these attributes, of course) .
One scenario that stands out for me happened while I was working as a journalist in Morocco in 2004. I had been hired as a managing editor in order to launch Morocco’s first English online new source. I was intricately involved in assigning articles, covering stories and editing the final texts for publication. After working there for many weeks, our team — a group of about 6 young Moroccan men and women and myself– had some disagreements about how to write about the death of Yassar Arafat, the Palestinian leader who had died the day before. In the context of a news article, my colleague wanted to write his name as The Hero Yassar Arafat, the fact that he was a hero was an unshakable truth for my Moroccan friend. Being educated in a Western Jounalism school, my bias in a news article was towards objectivity in our communication, and so I requested that we not refer to him directly as a hero in the text, since this was subjective and therefore open to individual opinion. It was of course a heated and controversial conversation. I truly didn’t want to make any claim as to weather or not Arafat was a hero and had little invested in it either way. With my Western journalist’s cap on, my mind had been thoroughly trained in objectivity and fairness and this was my main professional goal. I was deeply committed to these principles, and this is where the conflict with my colleague and I began.
What happened next surprised me and shook me to the core.
In the midst of an increasingly heated debate, my co-worker launched into a discussion about the Holocaust. He told me that it had never happened, and that it was simply a conspiracy designed to gain Western power over the Middle East. He had all the literature to prove it. My other colleagues chimed in, some from their desks accross the room, while others gathered around to contribute to the argument. What unfolded was the realisation that everyone I had been working with for many weeks did not believe that the Holocaust had ever happened. These people were my friends and colleagues and confidants, and I had no idea what I should do with this new found knowledge. I ran out of the office sobbing, and went to phone my boyfriend.
My boyfriend at the time was Jewish and the grandson of Germans who had fled the camps on the last boat to leave London for Sao Paulo, Brazil. His life had been deeply affected by Nazi history, and, I believe, as for most Jewish people with this past, the impact of the Holocaust continued to affect him on a soul level. Only months before, we had travelled to Berlin together and had visited the Holocaust Memorial site in the centre of downtown Berlin, as well as the Jewish Museum; we had even visited churches where Jews had been rounded up and held before being sent to the camps, and historical synagogues that were now, in the absence of a thriving Jewish community, simply museum pieces, albeit heavily guarded 24 hours a day.
In previous years I had studied Chomsky, who wrote a sentence that haunted me throughout this time: “To deny the Holocaust is to deny your own humanity.” I’d studied documentary film at McGill and in one of our classes watched archival footage of the ditches where the bodies of thousands of people were thrown in the days leading up to the Hitler’s defeat in 1945. These images had made me so nauseated, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up. Nearly a decade later, still very much identified with the Jewish story, I’d undertaken a Jewish conversion program.
So there I was alone, in the centre of Casablanca, on a pay phone, crying to my boyfriend in Montreal. I wanted it to be a perfect world. I wanted to share the same values as my colleagues. I needed compassion for a history that I knew was true. I needed to know that my boyfriend and best friend (also Jewish) would always be safe. I needed to know that morality would always prevail and that eventually there could be peace in our world and protection for all people.
A deeper dilemma was how to now relate to my job. Should I stay and work it out? Should I discuss this difference of opinion? Is it wrong to talk about whether or not the Holocaust existed? Would I then, in the process of opening up this question, lose my own humanity? I knew in my heart that any dialogue at all would give credit to an opposing position, and this felt intolerable to me.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about what to do next, because I was dismissed a few days later. I don’t think that my dismissal was directly related to this event or to our differing opinions; my boss told me there simply was not enough “team magic” to warrant me continuing. That was an understatement (getting paid for my two months of work would prove a challenge as well, but that is a story to be told another time).
So here I am today, faced with dilemmas that are not the same, but are dilemmas nevertheless. How do I maintain a friendship with someone who I have witnessed abuse an animal? How do I hold love in my heart for someone who has hit a woman? Do I maintain a relationship with an ex-boyfriend who lied to me? Can I have a relationship with that fun new friend who is homophobic? Do I sacrifice my own boundaries and moral convictions by opening up my heart or my life to people whose ideas confront my very sense of self, my moral identity?
When I address these questions with an authentic heart, in the context of my spiritual life, I have to recognize that I love these people, and there is nothing I can do about that. I can try to push the love away, but in a life of inquiry based on spiritual goals, love continually comes back to haunt us, even when we don’t want to admit to it. How can I love someone who has done something so terrible? Does compassion for a perpetrator condone his actions?
I know at a gut level that closing my heart to anyone simply means a world in which more hearts are closed.
I know that even when I have opinions that are so drastically different from other people, we both, at our core, share the same humanity, and the same desires for safety, connection, flourishing and self-realization. These thoughts bring me to a place of grief, grief for the times when my own heart has closed, grief for all the suffering that has ever happened in the wake of a closed and hardened heart. Grief for the realization that every time I have hurt someone, I have carried the burden of those actions inside of myself and felt the hurt too — that whatever I do to you, I do to me. Grief because this is a far-from-perfect world. Inside my grief, my heart expands into an aching acceptance, a surrender to the complex and messy living moment.
My personal goal is for what Martin Buber called the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship, which means simply that we stand before people with a presence that is not muddled by fear or judgement. We hold a space for the entirety of another human being, for his or her suffering, confusion, pain and strivings, and we hold this space for ourselves also. We become witnesses rather than arbitrators. Our relationships then become whole and they become sacred.
The question then moves from one of whether or not I can tolerate another person’s opinions, and what I should do about them, to this: Do I have the capacity to love? Can I find a path to love in an imperfect world?
Today, years after that warm afternoon in an office in Casablanca, I am still struggling to find this path.