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Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

Last Friday night, the theatre that I belong to opened a new show, To Kill A Mockingbird. This is the reason that I haven’t blogged in a while. Every spare moment I’ve had in the past six weeks, and even those moments that had to be shared instead, have gone into rehearsing for this play. It has been challenging. It has also been fabulous.

For those who are unaware, TKAM began as a novel, written by Harper Lee, a reclusive author who, until recently, was thought to have written only one book. In the past month, the public has discovered that she had actually written one before TKAM that involves the same characters and had been hidden in a vault for the past sixty years. It will be released this summer, much to our cast’s delight. I believe that the information about the new book came to light only a week or two after our auditions had passed, so the news made some of us absolutely giddy. If there’s one thing an actor loves, it’s an audience, so the prospect of renewed interest in the book practically guarantees that people will want to reacquaint themselves with the story. What better way to do it than in our little theatre? (Shameless plug, had to be done.)

TKAM is one of those stories that stays with you forever. I read it for the first time in 5th grade. I didn’t understand all of it then, but what I did get out of it was that judging people for the color of their skin was wrong, a good lesson for a suburban white girl who knew exactly one black person at that time. I read it a few more times on the way to adulthood and each time I got something new out of it. It appalled me that a black man could be convicted of something he didn’t do, even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary. I wished that I had a father like Atticus Finch, who wasn’t afraid to stand up to a whole town on the basis of being fair and doing the right thing. I was angered by the lies told, the two-faced commentaries of the town folks, and the absolute injustice of it all. I was envious of Scout, and felt her apprehension at having to grow into a young lady. I wanted a big brother like Jem (I was the oldest), a cranky Aunt Rachel to live with me, and a Miss Maudie next door. This book began a short love affair with all things Southern and I began practicing my accent when no one else was around.

Reading that book changed my perspective on so many things. When I was a child, it was common for racial jokes told be told and comments to be made in my mother’s husband’s family. After reading TKAM and other books like it, I realized that those jokes and comments were not only wrong, they were destructive, unfair, and damaging to a entire group of people that I was just learning about. TKAM began to teach me about the sad history of racism and how standing up for the right thing could be difficult, but so worth it. As Atticus states, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”   My own conscience was growing, developing, and every time I heard derogatory comments about other races, it rankled me. It still does.To Kill A Mockingbird began that process.

I hadn’t though about the novel for quite a while, but then the shows for the next year were announced. To Kill a Mockingbird was on the list and I was intrigued, but dismissed it almost immediately. I had never gotten into a straight show (non-musical) before, even after several auditions. My heart just wasn’t in it, even though I knew it would be a great show, but then a theatre friend of mine suggested that I audition.

“It’s a memory play!” he said, “You should audition for the adult Scout.” He told me that he thought I would be wonderful in that role and for the first time. I began to actually consider auditioning for it. I ended up going for it and while I didn’t get that particular part, (which went to someone who is AMAZING, by the way) I was so fortunate to get the role of Miss Maudie, neighbor of the Finches and adult friend to Scout and Jem. I’ve come to know Miss Maudie in a new way; I have to become her, I have to make her mine and I think that I’ve done the best I can. I hope that I can do her justice. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is absolutely stellar. The kids are fabulous, our Atticus is exactly as he should be, and everyone has become this small community of Maycomb, Alabama. That being said, I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would come to the surface. Actually watching Tom Robinson being grilled by Mr. Gilmer on the witness stand still makes me feel sick inside, even knowing that the actor playing him is his exact opposite in real life. Waiting for the jury verdict still fills me with dread. Somewhere in my head, my brain is screaming that they HAVE to find him innocent this time, even though I know perfectly well how it will turn out. I tear up at so many parts, even after all this time.

Being a part of this wonderful show makes me realize that it’s a story that still needs to be told. No, we don’t live in 1935 anymore, there are no more Jim Crow laws, but just this morning, an Oklahoma fraternity was effectively closed down for shouting derogatory racial slurs on a YouTube video. Racial injustice is still a problem, a huge problem. There are still people in this world who are raised on hate and prejudice, where a person’s skin color is the determining factor in how they are treated. How do we solve this problem? I don’t know. I don’t even pretend to know. Maybe reading and discussing TKAM should be a part of every middle or high school curriculum. Maybe it won’t change every student or their parents, but it may touch a few who are open to the idea that al people are created equal. Well, not really. As Atticus puts it, “…some ladies bake better cakes than others.”

I’m grateful for so many things, but the one thing that stands out for me at this moment is that I read To Kill A Mockingbird and it changed my life for the better. Peace be with you all.

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Last week was the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. In 1945, Soviet troops rushed into the camp not knowing what to expect, only to find hordes of traumatized, ill, skeleton-like people who had been left behind when the Nazis evacuated a few days earlier, taking the healthier prisoners with them, essentially on a death march.

Seeing the coverage in the news reminded me of a professor that I had, Dr. Jack Wayne. Dr. Wayne is now retired after having taught in the education department at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for many years. My husband had first met him back in the 1990s when Dr. Wayne would take classes to Greenfield Village for experience. I recall Marty talking about him, but wasn’t aware of the impact that he would have on my life.

I took Dr. Wayne’s class on teaching social studies in the elementary classroom back in 2006. I had heard about Dr. Wayne from other students who absolutely loved him, but I had never seen him. The first thing that came to mind when I walked into the classroom that day was that he looked exactly like an elf. A full head of pure white hair, a small stature, and twinkling blue eyes all contributed to the illusion. It was a three-hour evening summer class, but it went by very quickly.

After the first class, I went up and introduced myself as Marty’s wife, since he would have remembered my husband. As soon as I said Marty’s name, he got a big smile on his face. “Maaaaaarrrrttyyy!” he said. “Oh, I just love your husband! He’s such a wonderful guy.” I agreed with him, of course, and from that day on, he would always ask about Marty, what he was up to and so forth. I’m don’t think he was quite as enamored of me as he was of Marty, but since I was Marty’s wife, I passed muster. It didn’t matter that he liked my husband more than me, I was just happy to know him. One night before class, Marty brought the boys to come and visit. Dr. Wayne was elated to see him and they spent a happy twenty minutes or so catching up, Youngest Child quite happily spinning in a chair the entire time.

Dr. Wayne’s class was interesting. We did cover material in the book occasionally, but for the most part, our time was spent talking about other things: life, teaching in general, kids, and his time spent as a prisoner in the Nazi camps.

Dr. Wayne was born in Lodz, Poland into a large Jewish family. His parents owned a bakery there and all of the children worked. When Germany invaded Poland, the family was sent to the Lodz ghetto. Terrible things happened there, things that no child should see. Sick people rounded up and shot, starvation, his own father dying in the ghetto for lack of medicine. Living in those conditions should have been more than enough hardship for anyone to endure, but the Nazi regime didn’t stop there. When he was twelve years old, Dr. Wayne’s family was one of the last groups shipped out in cattle cars to the work camps reserved for Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, or anyone else who opposed Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

Dr. Wayne didn’t tell us about what it was like when they first arrived in the Birkenau camp, but his older brother, Larry, recounted in an oral history interview for the University of Michigan that after they were taken out of the train cars, their mother and one of their sisters were herded directly into one of the crematoriums, never to be seen again. The brothers were taken to other camps and separated. Dr. Wayne ended up digging mass graves out in the woods for the piles of bodies that were killed every day, in Dachau, I believe. He saw people commit suicide by deliberately trying to cross the fences surrounding the camp, unwilling to take any more of the torture inflicted upon them. Finally, he decided to escape, not caring if he made it or if he was shot. He ran, and was spotted. He was shot in the leg and went down, initially playing dead and then losing consciousness. Fortunately, none of the guards thought to check him thoroughly and the next thing he knew, he woke up in a military hospital. It was 1945 and the end of the war. Allied troops had found him and saved his life.

The brothers and one of their sisters were reunited in Germany after the war in one of the many programs set up to help the survivors. Although they had cousins who had also survived, they were the only members of their immediate family to make it through. They emigrated to Detroit and put down roots, getting an education, marrying and having families. The siblings changed their last name to Wayne, eager to make new lives for themselves in their new country. That was something that Dr. Wayne always talked about. The United States is a country of opportunity and he and his siblings never lost that sense of thankfulness, even all of those years later.

This was just a very brief summary of Dr. Wayne’s story, but the courage and the endurance of his family and others like them amaze me. The story of the Holocaust has always fascinated me in a horrified sort of way and I am not alone. Countless books and movies have been made about that time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Devil’s Arithmetic. The idea that an entire race should be obliterated simply for being who they are is a sick and twisted way of thinking that doesn’t seem like it could be real. The horrifying part is that is was real, and it was real in a part of the world that Americans thought of as “civilized”, not some remote jungle or desert country where the average American would find it hard to relate. Paris was occupied, for heaven’s sake, London was being bombed regularly, and you would be hard pressed to find a European whose daily life wasn’t affected by the war. Americans can’t fathom that type of existence, but unfortunately, many people in other parts of the world today can.

Our Holocaust survivors are elderly now and as we lose more of them every day, we lose that connection to a time when an evilness threatened to take over the world, and it came a lot closer than it should have. What is the point to all of this? I didn’t set out with any sort of agenda, only to remember a man who touched my soul. He was the first survivor who I had ever gotten to know as a person, who was so willing to share his experiences with us. As far as I know, he still gives occasional talks to Jewish centers and schools, but the last time I talked to him, more three years ago, he said that the memories just make it too hard sometimes, that it was difficult for him to sleep after speaking about his experiences. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to tell that story, to look at that number on your arm every day and realize over and again that this wasn’t a story out of a book, but this happened to you.

I look at my boys and thank God that they don’t have to go through what millions of Jewish children did. I’m thankful that they don’t have to go through what many children in the Middle East or parts of Africa are going through now. War steals childhood away, imprints violence on memories, helps shape children into something they would not otherwise become. Some, like Dr. Wayne, turn it into a teaching moment so that it hopefully never happens again. Some have their hearts so twisted by hate that they grow up to inflict that evil on others. Many don’t grow up at all, but become a number, a casualty of war in an unmarked grave to be mourned on the 6 o’clock news as I sit in my peaceful neighborhood where I’m not worried about my family being rounded up and taken away. It doesn’t seem fair, or right.

It amazes me that in our world today, there are still those who hate because of race or religion and justify their rationales with the same lies that the Nazis used to turn people against the Jews. In our word of advanced technology and education, shouldn’t it be more obvious that violence and war do nothing to solve any of our problems? Maybe that’s one lesson we should take from the Holocaust. On this seventieth anniversary of liberation and freedom, let us never forget how it got to that point and let’s raise our children with tolerance and compassion, to see others as fellow human beings. That is all.

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A friend of mine is going through a rough time right now. A friend of hers chose to end her own life a few months back, leaving behind a husband and young children. Just recently, the husband decided that he, too, couldn’t take it any more and also took his own life. The children are left with no parents, the family and friends are devastated, and it’s so difficult to see the point. They were young, so young. They were parents, with babies to think of. At first, the thought that ran through my head was how selfish it was to do that to your kids, to leave them confused and grieving for not only one, but both parents. Studies show that children of a parent, or parents, who commit suicide not only have a significantly higher chance of doing it to themselves at some point, but increased chances of emotional and mental problems, including depression. I didn’t know the couple, but it made me sad and angry all at the same time. It stayed with me, though, and after a while, I started to see things a little differently.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t agree that they had the right to do that. I still think there was so much else that could they could have done to combat the urge to end it all. There’s therapy of all sorts, medication, even just talking to friends or relatives, which would hopefully encourage a visit to said therapy. There seems to be no logical reason why two people would decide the events in their lives were so overwhelming that they couldn’t function. But the little nagging voice in the back of my mind urged me to not be so self-righteous and to remember that dark thoughts have crept into my own mind as well.

I have depression. A lot of people do. I’ve been properly diagnosed, it’s not debilitating, and I’m in treatment for it, going on three years now. The side effects of medication proved to be too much for me, so I’ve been in talk therapy instead. It helps, it really does. Being able to be completely honest with no fear of judgement is a great relief and it’s accompanied by strategies to combat those dark thoughts. My therapist specializes in treating people with my kind of past and doesn’t make feel that I’m crazy. It’s a good thing.

Let me be clear: Having depression does NOT mean that someone is suicidal. But having depression does make one more susceptible to having suicidal thoughts. Let me try to explain what it feels like when depression is in full swing.

I call it a “hole”. That’s the best way I can describe it. When I have an episode, it’s like I’ve fallen into a black hole. Sometimes there’s a trigger, like a flashback memory or a really upsetting day. It could be bad news, it could be that I didn’t get a job interview, that there was a misunderstanding at home, or just overwhelming feelings of failure. Whatever the case, it results in an onslaught of negative feelings. I fell hopeless, like nothing will ever be okay again. Horrid thoughts run through my head, like I’m worthless, that I’m never going to achieve anything, that I’m ruining my kids, my marriage. Awful, debilitating things that have no base. These kinds of thoughts are common for people with depression. They’re not “poor me, feel sorry for me” thoughts, either. When I get like this, I retreat into myself, really trying to hide it from others. I can function at work if I stay busy, but that usually results in stronger feelings when work is over. When I come out of a hole, I can’t believe that I allowed myself to sink in, which is silly, because it’s something that can’t be controlled, only managed. Eventually, it started to really affect my life and I knew it was time to get help. Since then, I’ve learned to pay better attention to when they’re coming on and different exercises to keep them short or away all together.

Before I started talk therapy, these “holes” could last an entire day or more. Like I said, I still functioned and went to work, but I felt like a zombie; dead inside. Since starting therapy, these holes occur very infrequently and when they do happen, they’re usually gone within an hour or two. In these “holes”, though, it feels like nothing will ever be right again. Even minor crises, like an argument with Marty or with one of the boys, can throw my whole world off, at least for a little while. For people with severe depression, those awful holes can last for days, weeks, or months. Some experience such utter hopelessness that they begin to see themselves as better off dead. I’ve never been in that spot where I’ve seriously considered the unthinkable, but it has gotten pretty scary.

Most people won’t think of suicide. Most people have bad days and can brush it off. With depression, which often mixes with anxiety, seemingly small things can balloon to huge proportions.The difficult part of that, though, and I mean really difficult, is recognizing that one needs help, and then to ask for it. It sucks to admit that you’re weak, that you can’t get over it on your own, that you couldn’t “pray it away’. That last one cracks me up. I’ve seen so many Christians who claim that you can pray depression away, and that if you can’t, it means that you don’t have enough faith. What complete and utter crap. It’s like saying that if you break your arm, God will heal it instantly if you have enough faith. I’m not denying that miracles happen, they do. Cancer suddenly disappears, a junkie no longer craves drugs, a person diagnosed as brain-dead wakes up with normal brain function, all of these things have happened, but not regularly, which fits the definition of “miracle”. Millions of devout people pray for loved ones with all sorts of illnesses every day. Some get better, some don’t. A mental illness is the same as a physical one; it needs help and attention. If you belong to a church that shuns mental health services, it can make asking for help that much more difficult and in the meantime, can create further damage.

We see both ordinary people and successful people, like Ernest Hemingway or, more recently, Robin Williams, take their own lives and we wonder how seemingly happy people, people that “have it all”, could seek out such a permanent end. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, or any answer at all. What I do know is that we need to treat mental issues differently. Rather than making it a taboo subject, shaming those with depression or anxiety, or condemning them for wanting to die, we need to be compassionate and caring. We need to stop threatening them with Hell or other horrors because thoughts of harming themselves creep in uninvited. We need to help them through whatever hard times they’re going through, get them to seek professional help, and just be there for them, without judgement.

Two small children will go to bed tonight without their parents. What can we do to prevent it happening to another child?

If someone you know is suffering from severe depression, or is thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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