I visited the holocaust museum in London a while back with my son. The last exhibit in the museum is a pile of shoes of all sizes ― men’s, women’s, and little children’s shoes. They are the shoes that were removed from the victims of the gas chambers before they were killed. You see, the shoes were more valuable to the Nazis than the people.
Take that in for a moment … let that really find your heart. We’re going to go for a twisty ride today and we need to be in our hearts to feel the true experience of this story.
As my son and I stood there looking at those shoes, deeply moved by the magnitude of what we were looking at, the guide who was taking us through the museum turned to me and said, “It’s unbelievable isn’t it? That someone would kill people just for being different from them.”
I just stared at those shoes, such a powerful image of intolerance, bigotry, and hate, while the words of the guide slowly filtered into my brain through the haze of the shoes. Then I turned to her and said something. I don’t know where it came from, I have wondered many times. I said, “It’s beyond horrific. But it’s not unbelievable. Because we continue to this very day to kill each other while saying, “Believe our way or burn in hell.”
That’s a powerful statement, I know. Even now as I share it I wonder if I should. But for me it’s true – and it’s a tragedy that after witnessing so much war, death, and destruction throughout the ages in the name of God, country, and ideology, that we continue to hold onto such destructive beliefs and still, to this day, kill others based on their beliefs.
I’m sure this story has evoked all kinds of emotions. I know these are tough topics to discuss – Hitler, God, War, Holocaust, Intolerance, and Patriotism. So let’s stop here and pause, because I’m not writing this for shock value; we have enough of that propaganda in our daily media intake. I’m writing this to ask us to think and then feel and then be.
Let’s take a deep breath together. In fact, let’s take a few of them. With each breath focus on your heart, feeling it fill with the in-breath and empty on the exhale. In and out … in and out … until a calm comes over you.
I am deeply respectful of everyone’s beliefs. I have studied many different traditions and find them all fascinating. I have visited churches and temples that have moved me to tears with their history of love and inspiration. At their best, our traditions unify us and teach us to love ourselves and our neighbors. But at their worst, they create an “us and them” mentality that gives rise to discrimination and war. In so many areas we have reached that point – us and them. And this is where we have an opportunity to stop and look ourselves square in the eye and ask this question …
“How am I like Hitler? What part of me is him?”
Perhaps a few more deep breaths are now in order. This is hard stuff, I know. But breathe and ask yourself the question.
Your knee-jerk answer may be to say, “No way,” to turn off the computer or put down your mobile and unsubscribe from my blog or social media site. But emotional first reactions are rarely the right ones, so stick with this for a minute. Really look at our world and contemplate on what I’m saying.
I know Hitler is an extreme example. So let’s go to the opposite side. How about sports? I used to take my son to a lot of sporting events – Lakers’ basketball, Dallas Cowboys’ football, San Francisco Giants’ baseball (we’ve moved a lot so we have an eclectic collection of favorite teams). But we don’t go much anymore. You know why? Because people are killing each other over which team they like. Wearing the wrong jersey to a sporting event has become a motive for murder.
Are you starting to see what I’m saying?
As a world we are not learning from history, instead we are repeating history to greater and greater degrees. We’ve come to the point where we argue over which group of men throwing around a little ball is better, and have turned that argument into grounds for hate and violence.
And so again, I ask the same question: “How am I like Hitler?”
The answer to that question is key to truly understanding what’s going on. Because until we can look inside ourselves and find the part of us that hates, the side of us that is intolerant, that corner of our psyche that locks away the rage – we will not heal; not ourselves, nor the world. That hate, the hate inside each of us, is the hate we see in the world, the hate we say we despise, the hate we say we don’t understand, the hate we wage war to eradicate … it lives in us all.
Now the really juicy part. What we hate, what we truly dislike, what we are angry with and disgusted by is not anything “out there”… it is ourselves. Greater than any external discrimination or intolerance is our own negative judgment of ourselves. And what we’re seeing in the world is a reflection of that.
It is said that Jesus said to love your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s easy to say we don’t do that. But I believe the opposite. I believe that what we do to our neighbors – the gossip, the anger, the hate, and especially the violence – is simply a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. From the youngest ages we’re taught over and over again that we’re not good enough. We are pretty only when we do our hair up nice and put on our Sunday best. We are smart when we learn what the teacher says and answer the questions the way someone wants us to. We are good when we sit silently, don’t express our feelings, and pretend that stifling our emotions makes us happy. And most of all, we are loved when we do as our parents and society say. All of that, the big, giant ball of gunky wax is rolled into our beliefs about ourselves and produces the daily holocaust that is brewing inside each of us. Then we go out and give it to the world. Seven billion of us, filled with anger, frustration and fear, playing out our story around the globe.
What could be the solution to all this? In my opinion it comes down to this beautiful image a friend of mine sent me. It’s two little boys, sitting in a park in Arkansas after the devastating hurricane that decimated their community. They wanted to help and so they offered to give the only thing they truly want themselves …
Have we really gone from the Holocaust to little kids giving hugs? Yes … because, you see, it’s all about little kids, the little kid in each of us who just wants a hug. If we could all just stop for a second, take a deep breath, and love ourselves the application of Jesus’ saying would be so different.
I want to invite you to do an exercise with me. It’s something my teacher and therapist Dr. Vera Dunn taught me. Take out a sheet of paper and a pen. Write down your name. Then above it a few inches write your mom’s name. And a few inches above that write your grandma’s name.
Then, starting with your mom, write down what it was like being her while you were in the womb and when you were a child. Think back to what you know about her. How did she feel? Was she alone or supported? Was she scared or was pregnancy a joy? Was money an issue for her? What was her relationship like with your father? Work? What did she feel about your grandma? Was she judged or supported? Answer these questions truthfully. Write it all down in a few words that capture how she felt.
For me the answers looked like this: my mom was scared, my mom always felt judged by her mom, she worried that she wasn’t good enough, my father only added to her troubles by not being around and fighting with her when he was; they had no money so my mom worried about how she would make ends meet. And she desperately wanted a good little boy to somehow prove to the world what a good woman she was.
Look at your paper. Really connect to your mom, to those feelings. Take a deep breath and just let it sink in.
Next go to your grandma’s name and answer the same questions about her. Focusing on her childhood and then the period of time while your mom was in your grandma’s womb and a little girl.
Here is mine again to make the sharing easier.
When my grandma was a little girl her mother went out for milk and never came back. She died in an accident and left my grandma and her two brothers alone with their alcoholic dad, who dealt with the tragedy by drinking more and more. This left my grandma in charge of the household at a very young age, until one day the state child services came and took my grandma and her brothers away. The children were separated – the boys sent to a boys’ orphanage and my grandma, all alone, sent to a girls’ orphanage. In a matter of months my grandma had lost everything and everyone she loved.
When she had my mom she was so afraid that she couldn’t pick up my mom, she thought she would break her. My grandma had so bottled up her emotions as a little child that she simply didn’t know how to love her daughter.
Tough right? Look at your paper. Take another deep breath and take in the details on your grandma. Feel what it was to be her. Connect to that.
Now go back to you mom and write a few words about what it was like to be the daughter of your grandma. What did your mom feel as a little girl? Write that down.
It’s time to get to the really personal part. Take a really deep, cleansing breath and answer this question: “What would the child of your mom who was the child of your grandma feel like? What feelings did “little you” experience?”
For me, the answer is I was scared. I learned from the youngest age that money was a huge issue. I believed the world was a scary place. I learned to be the absolute best I could be to make my mommy proud of me. I wanted to save her. I tried to be perfect because I thought if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be loved.
Now together let’s take a few more breaths. I don’t know about you but I have tears streaming down my cheeks right now. I have done this dozens of times and it still hurts. I am so proud of you for doing this with me. I want you to know that I am here with you. We are here together. Take another deep breath.
The final part of this exercise is the healing part. We have touched on some heavy topics today – Hitler, the Holocaust, God, our society’s intolerance, the awareness that hatred lives in us and that we have parts of our own self that we dislike. We have looked into the mirror of our family and seen all that looks back at us – even the parts that appear to be ugly. This takes real courage. You are truly amazing.
Now together we breathe and comfort the little child in us all and say to ourselves, “I love you for who you are, not what you do.” Deep breath. “You are a good boy.” Deep breath. “I love you.” Deep breath. “I am here for you, I will always take care of you.”
Do this again and again. Let your feelings be what they are. Just love yourself. Show the little you that you are safe. Let yourself see that all is well. Find the place of comfort where you truly feel loved – all sides of yourself.
This is our path beyond the hate and anger and violence of our world – past and present. Through an honest and vulnerable evaluation of our own feelings about ourselves we gain awareness, and from that awareness we walk in our own shoes, and that allows us to walk in the shoes of others. There is no bigotry in a world that sees itself in every living creature – that is the by-product of self-love.
I love you for who you are, not what you do.
Big hugs of love,