When I was about five years old, neighbours moved in that fascinated me in the way that five year old boys are beguiled. Curious stares from my side were met with terrifying glares from the woman back at me – which would send me running – and then back for some more prying. They were different, Max and Sue. No children for starters. Why would a couple not have children, I wondered (I wanted playmates). They spoke in a funny way, and were private, but always warm and playful with me.
Sue was scary. Deep lines etched her face, well beyond her years. It was as if shadows had impregnated her soul so deeply that the pain was seeping out her very pores. I rarely saw her smile. She could be dismissed as cold and heartless by the constant scowl on her face. But somehow – and I don’t know how – I knew better. She seemed to reserve a special fondness for me. Somehow, from that first meeting, I had got in behind her defences. Max, on the other hand, was a gentle, quiet and warm older man. There was something almost boyish about his gentleness – as if the rules of masculine aggression somehow didn’t apply to him. He struck me as unlike every other man I had met. My curiosity kept me coming back, and over time, I got to understand their story.
Max and Sue were Dutch Jews. Both had survived time in Nazi concentration camps. ‘Experiments’ on Sue rendered her unable to bear children. There was a gravitas about everything they did. The furnishings, the meals, the gardening. A steady pace, an intensity and deliberation about life. This, in contrast to our noisy menagerie. There was my mother, loud and lacking all discretion or social refinement (and guile, thankfully). And then us kids; all but my dad were extroverts, so we were a loud family. Poor Max and Sue, I reflect now. We must’ve been the neighbours from hell.
Max and Sue came flooding back to me when I read Markus Zusak”s “The Book Thief” two summers ago, and then again more recently when I saw the movie. My childhood neighbours would be all but forgotten now. No children, no relatives, their stories perhaps only half told, the depths of their travails silenced at first by the trauma of remembering, and now by the ignominy of death. But lest we forget, I want to remember. I told my wife that in our future planned trip to Europe, I want to go to Dachau for a day. I will hate it. I want to hate it. I want to be undone by the senseless suffering of millions. I lived next door to this silent, lifelong suffering my entire childhood and adolescence, barely aware of any of it, more immersed in the trinkets that distracted me. I was sheltered from it, for the most part. This is understandable, but had I not explored deeper, it would’ve diminished me in some way.
Why expose myself to trauma? Isn’t that ghoulish? Just after the second world war, British author George Orwell painted a nightmarish future where big brother (the state, not the reality show) would dominate and control our lives. Communism was the new threat and it was spreading fast. We would be told what to think, how to live.
In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Neil Postman commented that “when (1984) came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.” But they had forgotten another book, written between the wars, by fellow English author Aldous Huxley.
In his introduction, Postman continued:
“What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
In short, Big Brother (the reality show) did win. We watch meaningless lives lived in fabricated reality for voyeuristic pleasure. We are besotted with the trivial and trample on all that is sacred in life. I’m not being a dualist here; all is sacred, if met with depth. Nothing is, if treated superficially. What do our young men and women do if they have no cause beyond themselves? If universities are places to go to get fat paychecks to support indulgent lives, do we not become so bored with life that it loses all meaning? In his address to Bachelor of Arts graduates at The University of Western Australia, Tim Minchin told the students “this long luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed.” He also suggested that we shouldn’t pursue happiness, for happiness is like an orgasm; the more you focus on it, the more it goes away.
Instead, focus on what makes you human. Within me lurks forces that fueled Nazi Germany. I see it when our politicians clamor for our vote by telling us they can keep us safe from the hoarding masses arriving by boat wanting to take over our way of life. If I forget what makes me human, I will descend into self-preservation, comfort, pleasure, at the cost of empathy, community and depth. Then I will fight to preserve my hedonistic life, or believe I am entitled to it by virtue of my apparently intrinsic virtue – or because my God has specially blessed me.
American comedian Louis C.K.recently spoke on an American talk show about our predilection for the smart phone. He said (and the audience laughed nervously) that we keep ourselves constantly distracted by videos of cats doing stupid things, or shallow proclamations of other people’s unlived lives, to distract us from the joy and despair of being human. We taste no great sadness, true, but we also taste no great joy. And the weeping and the laughing belong together.
In his book “The Empathic Civilization”, Jeremy Rifkin argues that our vision for a unified, peaceful, sustainable world and our ability to realise that vision is rooted in the current state of human consciousness. He says that “we are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.” If another is in pain, he or she will cry out. In ignorance, I may misinterpret that cry of pain (like Sue’s sullen countenance) as blame, anger, aggression – and react by distancing or attacking. But Rifkin found we are not wired for violence and self-interest – these things diminish us, bore us, disconnect us from ourselves. We are in fact neurologically wired for community, love and compassion, and in a rampantly individualist culture, we forget that our most basic human desire is to belong.
The full development of this empathic intelligence is regard for every other living thing – which leads me back to Franciscan spirituality. We learn, through community, that we are born and will die. We learn that life is hard for us all. We learn, by belonging, that empathy is the opposite of utopia. Utopia is a myth, for to be human is to be filled with frailties and imperfections. Empathy, on the other hand, is grounded in suffering,and the desire to comfort in pain and celebrate in life.
St Francis’ great prayer is the essence of empathic intelligence:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
What happened in a different continent 70 years ago has nothing to do with me. Except the victims were, literally, my neighbours. This ‘inconvenience’ is my gift. We now live in a global community. We can no longer declare my little tribe as my people – or my religious group – or my nation. these are all fictions. No, the world is our family. And if the whole human race is my family, why stop there? Does not the cry “Father forgive, they know not what they do” the voice of God speaking out from the midst of his own holocaust, identifying with us in ours?
I want to go back to 1965 and look into the troubled souls of Max and Sue and embrace them for bringing the world, and therefore my soul, to me. In some way, perhaps they saw in me a son they could never bear. So I will never forget them. They started waking me up to how big my family really is. As many as the sands on the seashore, as many as the stars in the sky.