Wednesday, March 29, 2017
It’s Generational…. It Has To Be
We all have our stories to share, wounds from our past history and dynamics that absolutely had an impact on, if not totally defined our lives and ultimately the lives on whom we ourselves make an impact. Sometimes, we may think, “Is it just me?” when we consider the various disconnects and challenges in the various chapters of the lives we live. My answer is so often, “Actually, its generational!” It feels like while our stories are individual, there are so many checkpoints, if you will, that we have all gone through as have the generations that preceded us.
This strong feeling is reinforced constantly when I am in deep conversation with my colleagues, friends, family members, people I love and respect, and so on. And, yes, it happened again, just this past week! I was talking with a treasured colleague with whom I am involved in important Interfaith Dialogue work and as she was sharing her story and the narrative of her relationship with family members and the historical context in which those relationships have unfolded, I felt like I was listening to my own story in so many ways. Regardless of different regions of origin in our complex world, different religious backgrounds and different individuals, it was such a familiar story, that I felt often I could have recited it in unison right along with her. The fractured family ties, unhappy parents and grandparents who communicated the weight of their sadness to us, their children, and so much else that are part of our inherited family history have defined the people we have become. We have either carried on the various pains and their impact with the added weight of our own reactions in the connections we have forged in our lives; or we have tried to break the patterns, doing honor to the stories and the challenges that belong to our parents, our aunts and uncles and grandparents and others who are so pivotal to the people we have become, yet creating a new model of familial and generational continuity, if the larger context in which we live allows that to be an option. I would like to think that I have done the latter; at least I know I have certainly tried to do so.
Families that were uprooted or subject to vast changes in their lives due to oppressive governmental policies, hatred and prejudice and so much else left indelible scars on parents, grandparents and extended family members, whether they were from Eastern Europe, Asian or African lands or any other place where such dynamics ripped families apart, directly caused premature deaths of loved ones in such young years and otherwise left gaping holes in lives lived. Secrets of forbidden actions in impossible situations, separated parents in times when divorce was seen as such a shame, and being raised by those condemned to loveless marriages due to forced matches plagued Jews, Muslims and so many others within our various family trees across lines of religion, national origin and cultural context. This dynamic is not from hundreds of forgotten years ago, this is about OUR parents and our grandparents and we still carry the scars. They were not able to heal theirs due to the lack of psychological sophistication; the notion that any show of mental, emotional or psychological weakness was to be shunned; and their mere fight for survival in terms of basic economic existence and just trying to navigate day to day realities whether in Nazi Germany, the pogrom riddled life of Eastern Europe, the difficult life of Pakistan and India, the rife in so many Asian countries, or African conflicts. While Steven Spielberg has recaptured so much of these histories for those from families who suffered during the Holocaust, we do not have such comprehensive records for those of us from whose families went through the pogroms, or came from so many different lands of oppression on various continents. What we are left with are the scars and the secrets and the challenge of figuring it all out, often by piecing random little parts of a very complicated decades-old-puzzle together.
Today, we are worried, so worried that many fights that those of us in our 50s and 60s and older remember all too well and finally were able to reach the point where we could celebrate the acceptance and shared sense of being part of the human family may be threatening to reappear. In fact, unfortunately in too many cases they are. Muslims are once again being marginalized or demonized; anti-Semitism is on the rise and Jewish communities are feeling the pinch; Christian extremists and other religious right-wing adherents are feeling emboldened; countries are devolving into positions of acrimonious feelings towards those who are “in” or “out” and we are seeing the realization of our fears that yes, this hatred and lack of human empathy could happen again, and indeed it is doing just that. We are reminded of the statement that those who forget history and its conflicts are bound to repeat them.
Within this reality, many are asking so what can and should we do? It is in thinking of how to proceed that I would like to suggest a few truisms for all to remember and consider. Most important, we must talk with each other and reclaim the lessons of past chapters of our shared history. In doing so, it is important that we:
1. Don’t assume that you know someone else’s story. We do not know the pain that other people have gone through. Ask questions and be ready to listen and try to truly listen intentionally. Ask the person you are speaking with what lessons do you think come from their life and what is the legacy that they want to leave us. Remember that our lives do not just happen in a vacuum but that historical context and the reality of larger picture of our lives often dictates so much that happens in our personal journeys. Also consider that many may not want to share their stories, as much as we want them to. Just let our loved ones know we are ready to listen when they are ready to talk, and hope that such a day will come.
2. Pay attention to the generation from which people come. If someone is of the age that they lived through the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, KNOW THAT THEY WERE AFFECTED BY THESE EVENTS. For those who went through the unrest of the 60s and the 70s, we know what it is to protest, what it is to want something better, what it is to fight for social justice. Whether people were involved in the fight for civil rights, for equality for women, for understanding of various religious groupings, for inclusion of those with learning and personal differences, for acceptance and validation of LGBTQ persons – there is a lot of experience and storytelling to share with all who are willing to listen. Again, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Know that too often, “we have been here before” even if it did not and probably did not look exactly what we are experiencing now, precisely because of different historical backdrops.
3. Jewish teachings tell us to “give the benefit of the doubt” and to “not judge someone until you have reached their place.” It is important to validate each other’s reality and to acknowledge that we cannot know what it is like to be in an entire spectrum of circumstances in which we have not had experience, just as someone else cannot know our pain. Show understanding and compassion and chances are you may find out more about our troubled past that defined our family members and those around us.
We learn in the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, what happened before will happen again and what seems new is just something from before. In our family, we speak often of what is going on in today’s world and the actions that are taken. I see that there are protests and rallies where those of us who marched for so much about thirty to forty five years ago are joining with a new generation who is outraged. It is so important that we join together so that the healing so many of us worked for as the result of our parents’ and grandparents’ painful lives not be lost and that we all continue to repeat and learn from the chapters of our personal and collective history. I sincerely hope that generational challenges and the small victories that we have achieved are not lost in the shuffle of forgetting our past.