Thursday, September 11, 2014

Perspective


The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. – Carl Sagan
There are times in life when we are reminded of how little control we have over the everyday progress of our lives. When we see clearly that the Earth is but a speck in a vast universe, for a moment we better understand the fragile nature of life and our relationships to the natural world and to each other.

I was reminded of this in the Fall of 1991, when I saw Grand Canyon, a film directed by Lawrence Kasdan that revolves around the lives of a small group of people in southern California. From a wealthy Hollywood accountant who finds himself threatened by a group of black youth when his luxury car breaks down late at night, to an African American tow-truck driver who arrives in time to diffuse the situation, their lives are brought together through a series of random life-changing events. The characters, though separated by race and economic status, are each in their own way struggling to find meaning in a world that is often broken and divided. At the end of the story, they journey together to the Grand Canyon, where they encounter monumental wonder and the majestic beauty of the natural world. The experience allows them to step out of time and culture to discover something much larger than their individual and collective selves; to become united in a place that puts into better perspective their personal struggles, exposing the myth of separateness in their lives.

All of us, I suspect, have taken similar journeys when we have encountered the glory and grandeur of the universe. Perhaps, like me, you witnessed a star-filled sky from the top of a mountain on a clear night in New Mexico, the galaxy visible from a small segment of Earth below it. Or you walked along the shores of Lake Michigan on a cool September morning and watched the sun reflecting off the gentle waves of the clear-blue water stretching to the horizon. Or you stood in the well of the Sistine Chapel and admired the wonders of Michelangelo’s artistic and spiritual masterpiece. With each experience, we are challenged to take something more from the encounter than the visual alone; we take some meaning that enhances the remainder of our life’s journey.

“We are placed in a delicate network of vital relationships with the divine, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation,” said South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “We violate nature only at our peril, and are meant to live as members of one family.” It is an important lesson that challenges the cynicism and depression confronting us on a daily basis, for we live in a time of heartbreaking news, endless conflict and despair. If, instead of always magnetizing what is bad and broken we attempt to see what is good in this world, we can step outside of ourselves and appreciate the beauty of life, the diversity of the world’s humanity, and the decency that takes place every day amidst tragedy and defeatism.

*     *     *     *

“The planet does not need more successful people,” said the Dalai Lama. “The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.” As the world becomes ever more complex and broken, it becomes more difficult to process and to maintain a sense of hope and idealism. Every day we learn of civil wars and foreign conflicts, the terror of ISIS and Islamic extremism, televised beheadings of American journalists, displaced refugees, homeless children at our borders, environmental degradation and melting polar ice caps, all part of a world divided by religion, politics, and cynicism.

So how does one process the tragedy and heartbreak we read about and listen to each day? In a world of unlimited information and mass communication, with negative and hysterical noise bombarding us from all directions, how is it possible not to occasionally shut it down? Courtney Martin, a weekly columnist for NPR’s On Being, suggests that to remain an informed person in today’s world we must immerse ourselves in “the eternal stream of rubble, corruption, and death that is the daily news cycle.” It may explain why only a small percentage of us follow the news of political violence and religious strife in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and other of the world’s trouble spots.

It is understandable that people choose to shield themselves from news that has little obvious effect on their daily lives. Frequent consumption of negative news stories serves only to heighten our personal worries and anxieties. And yet, informed citizens are an important check against the abuse of state and corporate power. “If we, the relatively safe and privileged reader, don’t act as witnesses to the world’s violence,” asks Martin, “how can we fight against it? Is our mental comfort more important than the motivation that our discomfort might produce?”

It is a sense of perspective that is missing from most of the news we consume, a context in which the world’s events fit into a larger historical and geopolitical picture. I am troubled that the media fails to report more positive responses, people and organizations working to bridge misunderstanding, organizations such as United Hatzalah in Israel, where Jews and Muslims work together to provide medical assistance to those in need regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity; The Water Project, Inc., which brings sustainable water projects to sub-Saharan Africa, where access to clean water and proper sanitation radically transforms lives and brings hope to the people who live there; Aware Girls, which trains young activists in Pakistan to challenge violence and extremism; and Yakjah, a project of Peace Direct in India, which brings together young people from across Kashmir’s different religious and ethnic communities to learn about each other’s cultures and promote social harmony. 

There are so many more – Doctors without Borders, Lutheran World Relief, Church World Service, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, the list goes on. Peace and harmony is hard work, but those who strive for it every day rarely make the news. It is not the stuff of newspaper sales or television ratings. 

Only with a sense of perspective and context can we truly understand the significance and long-term importance of certain world events, and the relative insignificance of personal obstacles and setbacks. The world may be full of conflict and suffering, but it also is full of  love and wonder. It is at once cruel and kind, tragic and beautiful, corrupt and creative. Amidst all of the desperation that surrounds us, there exists the transformative power of light and hope and decency. “We must shine a light on the darkness,” says Martin, “but we must also cease overshadowing the light.”
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Benefits of a Sister


“My sister taught me everything I really need to know, and she was only in sixth grade at the time.” – Linda Sunshine
I had just turned two when the above photograph was taken, obviously excited about the prospect of diving into the birthday cake and proud of myself for having successfully blown out the two candles that stood in the way of yet another sugar buzz. My sister Linda, 7 ½ years old, stands beside me, her bright smile and innocent looking face betraying a slightly devilish spirit. I have no independent recollection of this precise moment in history, but I have only fond childhood memories of my sister.

“A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost,” wrote American author Marion C. Garretty. Though we were always in different schools or stages in life, Linda remains a solid presence in my life and the lives of my children, someone we can turn to for a kind word or listening ear.

My earliest memories of Linda are of her seated to my right in the backseat of our family’s Ford station wagon whenever the three of us kids, with me stuck in the middle, traveled anywhere as a family unit. It was the station wagon in which we took long vacations, pulling a Nimrod camper and driving for hours on end until reaching an inexpensive campsite somewhere between New Jersey and Utah, where the most excitement was finding some rocks to climb, a lake on which to skip stones, and the local canteen from which to buy candy and soda. Each morning, with Mom and dog Peppie aboard, Dad would announce when it was time for the three kids to cram into the backseat, where we stayed for the duration of the eight hours it took to reach our next destination. 

Although my parents would contend that I was placed in the middle because I was then the youngest and smallest of the three siblings, I tend to believe it was more of a strategic decision. Linda was only two years older than brother Steve, and they had a more traditional and competitive sibling relationship. At times, they got along about as well as the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland back in the late sixties. Stuck in the middle seat, I was a bit like Switzerland, acting as the neutral intermediary and physical buffer between Steve and Linda.  

It has been rumored the genesis of their tensions was the time Linda “accidentally” slammed the basement door shut precisely when Steve, then only two years old, stood at the top of the basement stairwell. What Steve was doing there and why he was standing unsupervised at the top of the stairwell has never been adequately examined. Nonetheless, the force of the door at the hands of Linda’s swift gesture abruptly sent Steve tumbling down the stairs to the cement floor eight steps below. None the worse for wear – the Doctor said it was likely because Steve was “relaxed” when he fell – Steve never quite forgave Linda for the mishap. Linda insisted in later years, without benefit of counsel, that she did not know Steve was standing there and that it was a mere accident. Steve is not so sure, but no charges were filed and the statute of limitations has long since expired, so we will never really know.

Linda was always nice to me, her youngest and more angelic brother, and for that I am forever grateful. When I was six years old and our family lived in Moorestown, New Jersey, Linda often walked me up the hill on Parry Drive to the local library or Woolworth’s on Main Street. Five-and-a-half years my senior, she possessed an air of authority that I admired and respected. Unlike siblings closer in age, there was never a sense of competition or rivalry between us. She was my friend and defender, my counselor to the ways of the world. As I grew older, she would teach me how to treat girls, what new foods to try, what classes to take, and how to maneuver college life and newfound independence. She helped me through my divorce many years ago, and she has been a wonderful aunt to my two daughters and a good friend to Andrea.


Born in 1953 when traditional notions of femininity prevailed and girls were expected to be teachers or nurses before succumbing to the life of a suburban housewife, Linda came of age in, but never totally embraced, the revolutionary sixties. In high school, she was the captain of the Cheerleading Squad, which brought many added benefits to me as a younger brother, especially when her cheerleader friends stopped by our house, as they often did. By the early 1970’s, with the mini-skirt in fashion and various social revolutions underway in the United States, I quietly endured these female invasions without complaint.

As someone who emphasized the “mini” in mini-skirts, Linda was a rather popular girl with the guys. Not yet realizing the ways of the world, I had a tendency to “hang out” with Linda and her boyfriends whenever she invited one of them over. The boyfriends were invariably polite at first, tolerating my presence as a means of impressing Linda with how nice and thoughtful they could be with this little brat she called a brother, but after a while I sensed a touch of annoyance. What could they have possibly had against me? But Linda was exceedingly patient with me, not wanting me to feel unwelcome. And besides, if I didn’t like the guy, she would eventually ditch him.

But time passes quickly and memories fade. I was only twelve years old when Linda left home to attend Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. As the daughter of parents who had met at Wittenberg, and impressed by its southern Ohio charm, off to the Midwest she went. Linda was the third member of my immediate family (after my mom and dad) to embrace the bucolic, tree-lined, grass-filled campus of that small but friendly liberal arts college. I looked forward to her brief returns home during winter and spring breaks, and I listened attentively to her tales and stories of college life, of football games and frat parties, the challenges of coursework, what the professors and students were like, when and where she studied, and where the best parties were.

During her sophomore year, Linda took a philosophy class with Professor Bob Long, who had been friends with my dad in college. On the first day of class, Dr. Long looked over the student roster and saw the name Ehlers. He looked up and scanned the room, pausing when his eyes spotted Linda’s familiar looking face. “Are you the daughter of Ed Ehlers?” he asked. Linda nodded. “Well, you’re a lot better looking than your old man!” Political correctness having not yet infiltrated the halls of Wittenberg, his remark was met with hearty laughter – at my dad’s expense, of course. 

Linda graduated college in 1976 in an outdoor ceremony on a beautiful, sunlit Ohio day. I can still remember the sense of pride I felt when she received her degree in full graduation regalia, a milestone that continues to mean something and which set an example for Steve and me. It is Linda I credit for my decision in 1977 to also attend Wittenberg. Linda was my cool, hip sister, and when she told me that Wittenberg would be a good fit for me, with the right mix of academics and social life, I knew instinctively it was where I wanted to go. When I graduated from there in 1981, I was glad I had listened to her advice and counsel.

The memories of childhood soon fade and our lives move ever so swiftly in chaotic directions. Linda married her college sweetheart at the young age of 22, gave birth to two boys, and moved to places far away – Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. Her first marriage ended in divorce and she has had some rocky times, with health issues and disappointments in life and work. But through it all she has raised two admirable young men, adopted four stray cats while caring for a rambunctious dog the size of a horse that she rescued from Hurricane Katrina, frequently buys lunch for homeless people on the streets of New Orleans, and generously offers her kindness and friendship to all smart enough to accept it.

Through life’s many challenges, Linda has retained her sense of humor. When my daughter Jennifer visited Linda in New Orleans during a college spring break, I called to see how they were doing. Linda answered the phone and said that she and Jen were sitting on the deck enjoying the weather and talking things over. Sensing that wine or other spirits may be involved, and concerned that Jen was not yet of legal age, I asked, “You’re not corrupting my daughter, are you?” There was a momentary silence on the other end of the phone, a little shifting around, until finally Linda replied, “What happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans.” And that was that. She would repeat this line when daughter Hannah visited New Orleans last spring.


I am always amazed in looking back on my life at how quickly time moves and how different is reality from our imagined dreams. Linda is 60 now, although she doesn’t look it, and life has passed us by with ineffable swiftness. Linda did not become famous, develop a cure for cancer, or win the Pulitzer Prize, but she has succeeded where many others in life have failed. For if everyone possessed the kindness and caring ways that Linda has maintained throughout her life, regardless of what fate and the Gods bequeathed her, the world would be a better, more refined and friendly place.

“There can be no situation in life,” according to the English writer Mary Montagu, “in which the conversation of my dear sister will not administer some comfort to me.” Distance and time have separated us for most of our adult lives, but it is because of Linda I understand still the benefits of a sister. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections on the Darker Impulses of Humanity


The fatigue I've gathered year after year and stored inside now heaves a muted cry of helplessness. Nothing but fatigue, rounding my shoulders, heavier than ever on this late autumn day with a useless sun, a world of unforgiving disasters. So many struggles and tragedies, so much sorrow and egotism in this dark, in this rotting century of hate. ― Emil Dorian, Quality of Witness: A Romanian Diary, 1937-1944
In mid-July, Andrea and I spent a day at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was my second visit to this deeply emotional and important collection of photographs, documents, films, and exhibits documenting, what remains for me, an incomprehensible horror of the 20th century. On this occasion, a German prosecutor on a research fellowship offered unique insights into the logistical dynamics of the death camps and the atrocities committed in them approximately seventy years ago. As with my first visit to the museum in 1995, this experience was a tragic reminder of the dark forces brooding in the soul of man. It is not just the sheer numbers of innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust that strikes at one’s heart; it is the individual humanity of each and every victim, which many of the exhibits try, however imperfectly, to convey and remember.

Upon entering the museum, I am provided with an identification card of Coenraad Rood, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Amsterdam in 1917. He graduated public school and, in 1937, became a tailor. He met his wife while working temporarily as a nurse at a Jewish home for the permanently disabled. They married and, in 1939, Coenraad opened a tailor shop in Amsterdam. In 1942, two years after Nazi forces invaded the Netherlands, Coenraad was deported to a German labor camp. He would be sent to eleven different camps over the next three years, during which he witnessed the deaths of all of his Dutch friends. Although Coenraad and his wife survived, reuniting after the war, 74 members of Coenraad’s  extended family perished in the Holocaust.

Coenraad’s story is one of hundreds of personal stories told on the identification cards printed and distributed by the museum staff. Among the exhibits and historical descriptions are entire rooms filled from floor to ceiling with framed photographs of Holocaust victims, when they were full of life and love, dressed in their finest clothes or gathered with family and friends. I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of faces covering the walls, displaying the eyes, lips, and smiles of people unaware of their tragic fates. I am struck by the familiarity of the faces in these photographs; the sheer ordinariness of the expressions and poses.

In one powerful display, I pause to study a large accumulation of shoes of actual Holocaust victims; four thousand shoes piled high and deep, a tiny fraction of those found at Majdanek in 1944. It is among the most powerful and deeply disturbing of exhibits at the museum, for it demands that you pay tribute; forces you to imagine the human beings whose feet filled each and every one of those shoes. These are the shoes of children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, young and old. I breathe in the smell of the aging leather and fabric, examine the markings, and imagine the faces of the people whose feet occupied them. What were they like? What did they feel and experience in their final days? It is a sensory experience that compels one to consider the Holocaust on a personal and empathetic level.

With the passage of time it becomes more difficult to imagine the horrors of the death camps. What was it like to be packed like cattle into railroad cars for days at a time, not knowing the fate that awaited you, unprotected from the brutal harshness of winter or sweltering heat of summer, with no chance to bathe, no place to relieve yourself, no chance to sleep? What was it like, upon arriving at the camps, to be immediately separated from your children and loved ones, some selected to die grotesquely in the gas chambers, the others to work in the camps until death or sickness finished them off? What if that had been me and my loved ones? How would I have coped, survived, resisted?

What makes the Holocaust so utterly and indescribably tragic – words simply cannot do justice to what I feel – was not simply that six million Jews (a quarter of them children) were systematically murdered as part of a Final Solution enforced by the technological, scientific, and military apparatus of a modern, civilized state; or that millions of others – Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and other "undesirables" – were included in the Nazi death chambers. It is that all of the victims were innocent civilians, non-combatants, with children and women and the elderly constituting large numbers of them. How could this have happened? How can human beings treat other humans with such callous disregard for their humanity? It may have taken only a handful of German officials to formulate and put into place the Final Solution, but it required thousands and thousands of ordinary citizens, soldiers, SS officers, and concentration camp guards to implement it. And it took an entire nation of people, centuries of anti-Semitism and prejudice, for the forces of darkness and deeply-ingrained hatred to allow the Holocaust to happen.

In the spring of 1997, I took a course on Judaism with a young female Rabbi in Spring House, Pennsylvania. In one session, the class examined why evil things happen to good people, and why things as incomprehensible as the Holocaust can occur in the world in which we live. In a journal entry I submitted to the Rabbi, I asked, “How can it be that so many people – many presumably decent people in other circumstances – could have knowingly acquiesced and become accomplices to such extreme cruelty?” In response, the Rabbi suggested another question, which haunts me to this day: “What is often most difficult to accept is that there is a dark part in each of us which has the power to act. If we had been there, in that time, would we have been able to say no?”

*    *    *    *    *

Many times the nations of the West have plunged into inexplicable cataclysm, mutual slaughter so terrible and so widespread that it amounted nearly to the suicide of a civilization . . . Twice within the memory of living men, the nations of Europe, the most advanced and cultured societies of the world, have torn themselves and each other apart for causes so slight, in relation to the cost of struggle, that it is impossible to regard them as other than excuses for the expression of some darker impulse. . . . The camps and the ovens, the murders and mutual inhumanities of the Eastern front, the unrestricted bombing of cities . . . the first use of atomic bombs – truly this was a war virtually without rules or limits. – Robert F. Kennedy, To Seek a Newer World (Doubleday and Company, 1967), pp.149-150.
The more I learn of the 20th century, and the more history repeats itself, the more I question my understanding of the human race. The barbarism of a war that killed 60 million people worldwide is beyond reckoning. What distinguished war in the 20th century was the total disregard of ethics and morality – in the Holocaust, in Nazi human experimentation, in the Nanking and Manila Massacres inflicted by the Japanese, and in the indiscriminate bombings of entire cities by Allied forces. No one had clean hands in the conduct of the two World Wars. These were conflicts in which civilized notions of combat were often disregarded. Even the United States, as justified and necessary as was American involvement in the Second World War, has lingering moral accountability in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, in the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the internment of 112,000 Japanese-American citizens at home.

It has been sixty-nine years since the United States unleashed the Atomic bomb on the people of Japan. It is a decision that continues to trouble me as an American, for I have for most of my life glorified World War II and America’s role in it. We were the victors, after all, who defended freedom and liberty for an entire continent of people. On a relative scale – as if massive death and destruction can be compared without entering the realm of absurdity – we were more “civilized” and less barbaric than the Germans and Japanese, both of which disregarded the laws of war and genocide. We were, along with the British and Allied forces, the heroes in all this. But we must account for our own moral failings, lest our values and ethical principles be rendered obsolete.

When on August 6, 1945, an American plane, without warning or precedent, dropped a single uranium-filled nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the nature of warfare changed forever. Four square miles of the city center were completely destroyed, as nearly 90,000 civilians – men, women, and children – vanished immediately. Another 40,000 Japanese citizens would eventually die in protracted agony from radiation sickness. Three days later, a second American plane dropped a plutonium-filled nuclear bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing 37,000 civilians instantly and injuring another 43,000. The eventual death toll from both bombs was approximately 200,000 people – mostly non-combatants, many of them women, children, and the elderly.

The conventional wisdom has always been that President Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan ended the war and saved potentially hundreds of thousands of American lives. The historical record is less clearly defined. But in studying the history of the decision, what surprises me most is that the use of atomic bombs on civilian populations did not at the time raise, to any significant degree, profound moral questions or debate. Anything that ended the war and did so quickly was considered justified. America and the West had little time for inner reflection. We were exhausted and understandably jubilant when the war was over.

But the lack of moral deliberation will forever trouble me. Some questions were raised beforehand, although quickly set aside. On May 28, 1945, physicist Arthur H. Compton, a Nobel laureate who served on a special scientific panel advising the President, raised profound moral questions about the use of an atomic bomb on the people of Japan. “It introduces the question of mass slaughter, really for the first time in history,” Compton wrote; and the added consequence of radiation sickness raises “much more serious implications than the introduction of poison gas.” General George C. Marshall, who believed the A-bomb should be used, if at all, only against military installations or large manufacturing areas after civilians received ample warnings to flee, seconded Compton’s concern.

In July 1945, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed General Dwight Eisenhower that the government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, Eisenhower believed, according to his memoirs, that “there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act.” He told Secretary Stimson of his “grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”

Many historians have since come to the same conclusion as General Eisenhower, compiling substantial evidence that, moral considerations aside, the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary as a means to end the war and prevent an eventual U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland. William Leahy, Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, wrote in his memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan . . .  My own feeling was that, in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”

Whatever the actual motivations for dropping the atomic bomb on two heavily-populated civilian cities with no warning and no opportunity to flee – whether Truman really believed he was saving American lives; or did not truly believe the Japanese were close to surrender; or wished to send a message to the Soviets at what was essentially the beginning of the Cold War – morality was not a relevant consideration. Had Germany or Japan at the time possessed a nuclear weapon, there is little question they, too, would have used it. It is thus not that America was morally unique, only that we were technologically capable; we were the only country with the bomb, and so we used it.

In 1946, the American Federal Council of Churches issued a Report on Atomic Warfare and the Christian Faith, stating that “whatever be one’s judgment of the war in principle, the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible.” Others also questioned the decision to drop the A-bomb, but it was a quiet debate, one that failed to penetrate in any meaningful way the American civic conversation. “It has become appallingly obvious,” said Albert Einstein, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

As an American born fourteen years after the war ended, having never served in the military or fought in a war, I have lived a privileged and sheltered life, an existence of middle-class comfort that I often take for granted. I understand that moral reflection is often a non-existent luxury in the heat of war. But it is imperative that, as citizens and human beings with a moral conscience, we continue to ask questions of and debate our past actions. For we have, in the words of Robert Kennedy “unlocked the mystery of nature . . . [and] must live with the power of complete self-destruction. This is the power of choice, the tragedy and glory of man.” The real dangers come from us, from the egos, passions, prejudices and jealousies of humanity itself. It is these forces we must together overcome or, in the end, we will defeat ourselves.