On Evil (and Forgiveness)

My thoughts as an English teacher on the lessons of The Holocaust, and as an American woman on the Las Vegas shooting:

I challenged my students to write about forgiveness, as it relates to their own lives, after watching a short film about a Holocaust survivor named Eva (BuzzFeed). She made peace with the doctors of Auschwitz who performed tests on her and her twin sister. We’re studying Night by Elie Wiesel.

On Evil

(written today)

Man, it it is not easy to teach Night or the Holocaust in general. The atrocities and sadness weigh on us as we sometimes fight back tears reading the intensely personal story. But, it makes a lasting impression. It’s one of the books I vividly remember studying in high school, whereas many fade or – let’s be honest – may not have been read in the first place.

I have a hard time teaching it in some ways because what exactly is the lesson? To make sure history doesn’t repeat the senseless horror? The stupidity? The bystanders? The problem of people who follow orders out of fear? Perhaps, the only useful thing we can take from the story is the plea to do better, to say something, to stand up to evil as we see it in our own lives. (Or in Eva’s case, the power of forgiveness.)

The problem with evil is it’s invisible. Who or what do we stand up to? Oftentimes, like recently in the horrific Las Vegas shooting, evil evades accountability with a self-inflicted rifle shot to the head. A loner, a red blip who surfaces to destroy, then submerges back into death, or anonymity, until the next time. Whatever motivated this man – did it die with him? Or is it breeding in the confused heart of another somewhere across the nation? When rationality, explanation, and sense fail, maybe it is just evil left. And how do you wrap your head around evil? I thought I didn’t believe in evil.

It defies logic, confuses, saddens, disappears. It leaves us with answerless questions. To paraphrase from Night, there is a power in a question which is lost with the answer. The power of evil and the answerless questions it leaves in its wake dumbfound us. We want to make it about guns, to take sides, to be right, to gain traction in our grappling, but we just can’t. It doesn’t get us anywhere. We’re left holding only the haunting residue of that which can’t be explained.

(Funny. I was just going to type up my response to Forgiveness, and not post about teaching on this blog for once. And now I’ve gone off on a tangent about Las Vegas. I never said this blog wouldn’t be rambling. And these thoughts are colliding this week. )

On Forgiveness

(written last Friday)

Forgiveness is perhaps the most powerful force anyone has at their disposal. True forgiveness is available to anyone. It’s free, but it takes work.

Read more On Forgiveness here…

 

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On Forgiveness

I challenged my students to write about forgiveness, as it relates to their own lives, after watching a short film about a Holocaust survivor named Eva (BuzzFeed). She made peace with the doctors of Auschwitz who performed tests on her and her twin sister. We’re studying Night by Elie Wiesel.

(Written last Friday. The forgiveness I know about is so much less than the forgiveness of those who like Eva, came to forgive the people who inflicted horrific violence on them.)

Forgiveness is perhaps the most powerful force anyone has at their disposal. True forgiveness is available to anyone. It’s free, but it takes work.

Your first reaction is to punish the person who hurt you, as if somehow your anger or withholding will teach them a lesson. The truth is the withdrawal of love will only bankrupt your own heart and make you bitter. Forgiveness is the only way out. It’s empowering and maybe even selfish in some ways.

So what does forgiveness require? Empathy. You have to take on that person’s actions, see their errors, maybe even imagine their own pride, their own ego trappings, and beneath that, their own softening and willingness to exchange love instead of hate. This place of softness in another may be real or imagined, but I imagine and believe that each of us is love underneath it all. We must be. As human beings, we simply must be. And that’s why it’s so painful to witness others acting outside of that truth.

Forgiving someone – even if they never actually apologize – is genuine. Forgiving someone – even if it’s only in your own heart – is healing.

The reason forgiveness is so healing is rather simple. When you wish to truly forgive someone, you replace the hurt with love. You can’t just say it, think it, and it’s done. It takes time. If we look to the words of our teacher, Christ, he says, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” We know not what we do. In our own perspectives, we all have blind spots. We all have hardened places that hold up our ego, our persona, and our personal belief systems.

In our unwillingness to bend, to remain rigid, to hold up those walls, we sometimes sacrifice connection. Whenever possible, offering forgiveness may salvage that connection. When it is impossible to forgive another directly, forgiving them in our own heart might save our own softness, vulnerability, and capacity for love and happiness.

 

Dreaming of Truth in 2017

 

I’m still reeling from the fragmented fairytale of the American dream.

I was publicly educated to believe in American ideals, and everywhere I have looked, for as long as I can remember, I have seen hypocrisy. I hate to sound so dramatic. I do know people who live their values, but the larger system is corrupted by capitalism. It’s maddening that money is power and that power is becoming absolute.

If we’re going to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and keep indulging our youth in this dream, then as a society don’t we have to be accountable to those values somewhere? Shouldn’t it all add up? Or do people really prefer to remain deluded?

The Dream and the Dreamers, as described by Ta’Nehisi Coates, are devastating to everyone in this country, regardless of race. The Dream keeps the privileged afloat, buoyant in their arrogance and entitlement. It puts the privileged in an awkward position: wake up and be disillusioned or dream on ever batting away the nagging feeling that something doesn’t add up.

I want to talk about value, values, truth, and hope in America right now.

First of all, what has value? Money is the class-maker, the vacation-taker, and the wealth-faker. Many of us live in debt, terrified of being poor. Poverty, like a sickness, or worse, a sentence, looms above us.

Values used to come from church, I think. Maybe also from schools. Certainly from parents. As an educator, “Go to college so you can get a good job” doesn’t cut it. We’re equating the only value of an education with monetary reward. Dear God. I thought that was absolutely the stupidest thing I had ever heard when I was in high school. That logic is still circulating today.

I think I became a teacher because one of the few altruistic, and yes noble, people I came into contact with as a young person was a teacher. She introduced me to transcendentalism, Romanticism, the idea of an elevated life rich in art, beauty, and truth. It was just a taste, but left just enough residual intrigue and I had enough admiration for this single person to throw myself into an English Education program and find out what that was like. I never wanted to be somebody telling some kid to go to college to make money. I wanted to be the opposite. I wanted to bring value to learning. And I don’t believe that wealth should be the only thing that affords a rich existence.

If we worship money, if we hate poverty, if we reward greed, and we allow babies to be born in wildly uneven circumstances, if we allow vast fortunes to be inherited, then let’s quit saying that we’re an undivided country, with liberty and justice for all, and just tell ourselves the truth.

You see the problem with me is that I believed the lie, the dream, the once upon a time vision now corrupted before me.

And I don’t want to let it go. It’s not like I can just change, because I want to believe. Those ideals are beyond political, or idealistic; they’re deeply spiritual and human. I do believe that within us all, we want to tap into those values and live a life rich beyond imagination. Some people may not even know that exists. My dream is for all people to know their potential and the potential for greatness that lives in them. To truly be equal and  have self-worth and develop their personal strengths – their heart songs.

I think this is what men, women, and children were made for.

The Most Boring State To Drive Through

“Look at how pretty the grass is.”

“You’re the only person who consistently comments on that,” he said.

I thought about it.

That’s because I’m always startled and then momentarily consumed by the nuanced beauty of the prairie. It’s like déjà vu every time I experience this feeling behind the wheel, as I’m blasting through hundreds of miles of country. Picking out tints and threads of tufts and noticing larger smudges of rich color that stretch across the whole field or sky. It matters not whether I’m creeping up over a mountain pass or flying through the plains, but I do have a special, and maybe even somewhat unique affinity for North Dakota, unique in that it’s one usually reserved for natives of the state.

I revel in the reverie the prairie awakes in me because once, it was not known to me. When I was a child, I thought the country brown and tan and dead. Barren, sun-scorched, brittle, dry, and ugly. The enormous wind would knock me about. The wind would burn my cheeks and tangle my hair. My mom concurs; that’s the way she saw it as a kid, too. But something happens over time that turns it to treasure.

As I grew older, sunsets serenaded me. The sunset would hold me captive from so far away on the other side of the car window. My friends and I listening to some long ago song in an old car would wind down the road together, letting the golden hour cast warmth over our tender faces, emblazon strands of hair that bobbed along in the atmosphere of adolescent meditation. In the backseat was me: always imagining ways to paint the cathedral windows I saw in the kaleidoscope of bare black tree branches and the surreal sky that lay behind, sometimes catching with a start the whites of my own upturned eyes reflected in the window as I looked out.

Maybe next it was the slow promenade of clouds dragging massive shadows in their wake across the pale fields. Then dissipating and regathering wisps of white on a sky blue day. Then pure, raging electricity that was palpable when a thunderstorm arrived. Or a myriad of colors in a single field, a whole rainbow in tones.

I guess I can’t help commenting on the beauty of this place we get to call home.

My first blog post.

Again. And I hate writing the first one. It’s the same reason I haven’t been able to make any art lately.

There are too many things to say, too many things to paint, too many things to be.

My indecisiveness has plagued me at every stage of life since I was given the ability to decide things. I could blame this on a lack of confidence in my choices. I don’t know where I come from, but I’m either contrarian in nature or just a product of a Lutheran upbringing taken to heart despite a very conservative home state. (Yes, those things contradict each other imho.) Either way, I find myself second-guessing many of my impulses. I could attribute that to humility, level-headedness (haha), or checks and balances, but it’s probably more like fear. Like, a what if I do what I want to and then everyone can say they told me so when I fail kind of fear.

This has led to a lot of compromises in life.

And who knows? Maybe it has saved me from utter failure and hard times.

It leaves me feeling like every choice I make is a door closed on another, so I think I’ve postponed a lot of choices in my life. And I tend to remain not entirely committed to others. And it’s also stopped me from pursuing a lot of things. I sometimes feel frozen. Stalled. Writer’s blocked in life. Like every commitment is furthering my life path in a direction I can never return from. And it is! But, so what? What’s my hang up? This is what it’s like for everybody, right?

Even journaling. I almost didn’t start this post because it could have been about anything. I could have written a post about ideas for the future of American politics, nostalgia for the landscape of my childhood, the struggles and rewards of being a public educator. Or I could have become overwhelmed and written about nothing.

I guess what I need is discipline. Discipline to just move in any direction, rather than sitting and thinking about how many different directions there are, and trying to pick the perfect one. The paradox of choice?

It’s the same feeling I get when there are 29 different shampoos to choose from.

Overwhelmed. Shampoo doesn’t matter but how I spend my leisure and work, where I live, who I surround myself with: these things do. What I create matters, but it doesn’t matter that much. I think the point is to get messy and have fun and forget about the judgment of the world completely. I know you can’t create art in a vacuum, but maybe, yeah, you kind of can. And maybe I need to shut out the noise and really look inward.

My soul isn’t a vacuum, right? If anything it’s a bridge.

So if you read this, thanks. I’ll be trying to do more of it.

 

 

Oh, North Dakota

Ever since I can remember, I thought, North Dakota is not for me. I want to be in the big city. Chicago. Yeah, Chicago sounds big.

When I wanted to go to college out-of-state, that wasn’t really going to happen. Too expensive. And being from North Dakota, I stayed in the favor of saving some bucks.

I desperately wanted to live on the California coast, still kinda do. But no, the economy isn’t too great out there, blah blah blah. I stay.

Well, here I am, 27, still living here in North Dakota. I have lots of friends and family in the city I grew up in, Bismarck. But, currently, I live in Grand Forks. I’m getting some experience as an English teacher and I just started an LMIS Master’s program.

I still say I want to go. And maybe I will. I joke that our bumper stickers should read, “North Dakota: Why the hell do we live here?” If you have ever spent more than two weeks in negative sixty with windchill, you’ll understand.

People who aren’t from the plains don’t get the beauty. “There aren’t any trees,” they’ll say. “It’s so flat!” (Yes, the eastern part of the state is incredibly flat. The poor children sled down the man-made dyke.) But, as you venture westward, you’ll see rolling hills. And the lone tree, so symbolic in itself, is a hauntingly beautiful sight.

The haunting beauty. You can almost feel our ancestors in the presence of a great wind. I get lost imagining just how the homesteaders made it through their first winters and summers, equally oppressive, here on the plains. I imagine the native people and how they withstood the blizzards and thunderstorms for so many years.

The grasses come in the colors of the rainbow, subtly. Waving like a million hands that collectively make up the sea of amber with dashes of burgundy. Little splashes of deep green. In the distance, a hazy blue. Little yellow flowers and champagne colored straw. You may have to look for it, but it is there.

And then there’s the sky.

The sky here is expansive. It’s pervasive and the infinity of it is contagious. I think we make daydreamers here in North Dakota. We make introspective sunset-watchers. The beauty of this place isn’t in-your-face like a jungle waterfall. It is a creeper. It lulls you into a state of imagination. Turn your face up to the sky here and see the massive clouds and the palette of the day: maybe a renaissance peach and smoky blue.