Category Archives: Right Action

Healing Requires the Courage to Feel and Tell the Truth

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Rumi

 Whenever we talk about healing, we are talking about how we process pain. It is the pain we experience that leads us to the desire to heal. And even though it seems counterintuitive, without the lessons we learn from both pain and healing, we would be shallow human beings. We would be unable to understand the pain that others experience and the paths we need to follow in order to heal.

I read two stories recently on pain and healing that inspired me; both were about pain caused during the Shoah (the Holocaust). Two Germans, a man and a woman discovered acts of evil perpetrated by a member of their family. Both of them had the courage to face the pain their family members caused and by talking about it openly, rather than hiding it, created healing for themselves and others. These two acts, feeling the truth and speaking the truth are the essential components in our healing journeys.

Just before Tisha B’Av this summer at the Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville, New Jersey, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger spoke these words “I’m not a son of a [Holocaust] survivor. But I’m a son of a perpetrator. And I have to live with that, and I have an ongoing living and struggling with that issue. But today I’m also a Jew. I’m an Israeli citizen and serve proudly in the IDF as an officer.”

Wollschlaeger is the son of a highly-decorated World War II German tank commander in the elite SS killing squad, the Totenkopf (Deathhead Squad). When his father was arrested years after the war ended, Wollschlaeger learned what his father had done. Before learned the truth, he had been proud of his father’s war decorations. But while his father was in prison, Wollschlaeger would not visit him. Instead he took the time to learn about his father’s crimes.

This happened at the same time as the Eichmann trial in Israel. Wollschlaeger read as much as he could about what Eichmann, the Nazis, and, therefore, his father had done. He was afraid that his family was permanently tainted by his father’s evil.

Instead of putting this new information aside and going on with his life, Wollschlaeger traveled to Israel, worked on agricultural kibbutzim, studied at Hebrew University, all the while learning more about Judaism. He became an Israeli citizen, converted to Judaism, and married a German Christian woman who also converted. He does not think of his modern orthodox life today with his wife and three sons as making amends for his father’s actions, but as fulfilling his own Jewish destiny. His ability to speak to Jewish groups about his reality, his pain, and his healing, is an important model for us all.

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The second story is about Barbel Pfeiffer. Her grandfather not only helped to build the electrical system and gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp, he also served as an SS guard who beat Jews and other prisoners as they worked to make tanks in a factory. On her latest trip to Auschwitz, Pfeiffer said, “I have been in Auschwitz five times already, but every time I go, it makes me cry again,” Her most recent visit was with a Christian-sponsored, interfaith group called March of Life, inspired by the March of the Living. Instead of going to camps in Europe and then to Israel, the March of Life visiting only concentration camps. On this trip there were 420 people, 50 of whom were descendants of Nazis and Nazi collaborators.

Barbel didn’t know her grandfather but was told he never talked about what he did during the war. It “came to light when my parents saw how much I researched my family history, and how badly I wanted to know what happened during that time,” she said. She was the first to delve into her family’s connection to the Holocaust. Her father didn’t know what his father had done but learned about it from a relative who assumed he knew.

Pfeiffer broke the chain of silence in her family. Her husband went on the latest trip with her to Auschwitz. While she was there, she called her sons and told them how she felt. “They asked me, ‘Mother, are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I think it is very important to talk with them about it, and we do.”

At the end of that trip Pfeiffer’s final words to a reporter were “We have just come from Auschwitz. I told the Holocaust survivors, their children and their grandchildren, they are very precious people for me.”

These stories show us that it takes courage to experience our most profound pain and then heal ourselves from it. Once we heal ourselves, we can then help others to heal. It is said, we heal not only ourselves, but seven generations backward and seven generations forward. Imagine the children of Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer. These children have parents who tell them the truth even when it is painful and show them how to experience thei pain and then heal from it. Their parents are role models for them and us about how to live a righteous life.

Both Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer followed Rumi’s advice and saw the light in their families’ wounds. This light led to profound healing for them and others.

May the words and actions of these two brave and righteous Germans serve as our inspiration to spend time every day reflecting on the truth of our lives, facing the pain that we feel, and healing our bodies and souls.

 

The Sociopath Isn’t Always Next Door

The experience has become too familiar. We hear about a mass murder, the most recent at a movie theatre in Aurora CO. We find out about the alleged killer, this time James Holmes. We try to make sense of him and his actions. We debate whether he is a sociopath, knowing right from wrong and choosing wrong, or whether he is insane. If only being to label him would magically remove our pain, frustration, anger, and fear.

One way we cope with such difficult and intrusive feelings is to distance ourselves from those who perpetrate evil. We assure ourselves we are nothing like them and focus only on the evil they do, not on their humanity. This distance helps comfort us, helps protect us from seeing that we also have the capacity to cause pain to others.

Stanley Milgram, a psychology professor at Yale University, proved this reality in his famous experiment in 1961. He found that 65% of his subjects were willing to administer electric shocks up to 450 volts to fellow subjects in the experiment. The shocks were not really given and the fellow subject was part of the experiment. But not knowing that, almost two thirds of the men and women tested were willing to administer what they thought were increasing amounts of electricity to another person even when he or she begged them to stop. Click here for the chilling transcript. This experiment has been replicated many times since 1961, most recently in 2008 by Jerry Burger, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.

Martha Stout in her book, The Sociopath Next Door, tells us that what divides us from the 4% of the population who are sociopaths, is that they have no conscience and we do. Our conscience is the part of us that knows the difference between right and wrong; the part that feels an obligation to support and protect people simply because they deserve that support and protection.

We are all capable of understanding the right thing to do based on what society, employers, friends, and family expect of us. But actions that are intellectually based have nothing to with our conscience. Stout tells us that our conscience is motivated by feelings, not thoughts, that our conscience is activated when we feel love, compassion, and tenderness toward people.

But with people we don’t love and especially with people from whom we feel disconnected, we are not as likely to support and protect them or even actively care about what happens to them. We feel a disconnection because we perceive unbridgeable distances between us and others. We feel these differences with those who are richer or poorer; more or less educated; have darker or lighter skin; observe a different religion than we do. Once we create those distances between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we can more easily ignore ‘their’ humanity and ‘their’ needs.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, we all live in a personal world of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There are people we feel more comfortable being around, those are the ones we tend to live our lives with. Most of us were taught about finding differences between people when we were very young. Once those lessons become embedded in our feelings, they are very hard to change. Hard but not impossible. In fact, changing how we feel, from seeing the differences to seeing the similarities is one of the most important things we have to do.

We have to find the humanness and commonality that automatically exists between us and everybody else, even with those people who do the most damage in our world. It is our most difficult challenge and our most important action.

If we do not learn to accept the humanness in everybody, we will end up being part of the 65% of Milgram’s subjects who chose to cause harm to others. None of us can afford to let that happen.

Penn State – What can we learn?

Since last November 11th  I have watched as the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State unfolded. My interest was personal. For over 20 years I worked as a psychotherapist with adults who were sexually abused when they were young. Just as with the young men who testified against Jerry Sandusky, my clients were singled out because of their vulnerability; like the young men Sandusky abused, my clients did not have an adult who could protect them against a powerful predator.

Many people have expressed shock about what happened at Penn State. I was not one of them. I’m not shocked that Sandusky did it or that the Penn State officials covered it up. I am shocked that so many people didn’t believe this could happen at such a prestigious university, by men who were revered by the entire community.

As soon as the news broke, I thought about my clients who told me the same stories these young men were telling; about trusted adults who used and abused them. For some it was a family member, for others a teacher or coach, a member of the clergy, a beloved baby sitter.

One of the main reasons I believed Sandusky’s victims was because I know that often institutions are valued more than people. In this case the Penn State officials valued the football program more than the boys who were being victimized by one of its coaches.

In its 267 pages the Freeh Report, authorized by the University to investigate what really happened, accuses at least 4 Penn State officials, including idolized coach, Joe Paterno, of knowing that Sandusky was abusing children on the campus. They knew that going to the police would compromised their football program and they chose football over the children.

Since these revelations came to light, some justice has been done. Eight of Sandusky’s victims have testified at his trial. They faced their abuser and told everybody what happened. This is one of the most difficult but empowering acts for one who has been abused and these young men deserve to be honored for doing this. Jerry Sandusky is in prison for the rest of his life. The officials who engaged in the cover up will suffer their own punishment. Possibly jail sentences, definitely loss of their reputations.

As I thought about how insufficient these results were, I wanted to know if Judaism’s ancient Sages had anything to say about this. I knew it wouldn’t help the men Sandusky abused but it might give us a message that we could use in our lives today.

I found an answer in the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text composed almost 2000 years ago. It was on daf (page) 38a in the tractate Gittin, which discusses the laws of divorce. We learn about a master who is required to release his Canaanite maid servant because the men in his household were sexually abusing her and he could not stop it. Allowing this slave to go free directly contradicts a law found in the Torah, the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Leviticus (Vayikra) 25:46 we learn that Israelites are not allowed to free their non-Israelite slaves, but the Sages, who explicate the Torah laws, realized that protecting a vulnerable servant transcends even Torah law. As punishment for his inability to protect his maid servant, the master loses his right to keep her as his slave.

I know it’s tempting to focus on the issue of slavery. But let’s leave that conversation for another day. For right now let’s stay focused on the surprising fact that the Rabbis were willing for the master to break a commandment so that justice could be served. It was that important to them to teach that those in power need to protect the vulnerable members of their household. The maid servant is set completely free without prejudice and Rashi, the great Jewish commentator [France, 11th century], tells us that once she is free, she can marry a Jew who will protect her.

This speaks directly to what happened at Penn State. While the children that Sandusky abused were not officially members of the Penn State household, once Sandusky brought them onto campus, they became just that. And once the officials knew what Sandusky was doing, it was their obligation to report him and protect those children. Their cruel negligence for more than a decade puts them in the same category as the master in our Talmud.

It’s much too late for the Penn State officials to free those young men from the abuse they suffered. But it is not too late for the officials to take responsibility for their lives. They should be made to provide them with enough money so they can seek the healing they need and have whatever amount of comfort they can find. I believe that because the Penn State officials chose a football program over the lives of young children, they are now permanently responsible for those lives.

Although it’s inspiring that we have the Rabbis’ ruling, we shouldn’t need it to know that each of us is responsible to protect the vulnerable among us. The page of the Talmud citied above makes this way of behaving explicit in the Jewish world, why is it not just as obvious in the secular one?

Even though over the years we have learned how common it is for the powerful to abuse the vulnerable; even though we know that we need to stop these predators, we have yet to change our collective behavior. May Penn State be the example that finally embeds this lesson into our national psyche.