Friday, June 15, 2012


"I look where it is good.  I know about the bad, but I look at the good thing."

One hundred eight years is a long time to live.  At 108 years old Alice Herz-Sommer, the woman I've just quoted, is the oldest Holocaust survivor alive.  A few weeks ago I watched a short video about her and was left, am still left, with a sense of awe, and also, to be quite honest, some confusion.

I am in awe that someone who survived the Holocaust could be such a happy, forgiving person.  If you watch the video, you'll see what I mean.  As I think about it, I know a lot of people who have survived horrific experiences and are joyful and generous people.  I've met them in El Salvador and Guatemala.  I've met them in Palestine.  I've met them in Louisville, KY.  I've met them many places. Their resilient spirits inspire me to be as kind and generous with others as they are.

But I'm still confused by the quote that begins this blog.  Yes, I firmly believe we must look at the good things, seek them out, especially in those places where they seem least obvious. I think the more we recognize the good, the more able we are to amplify it, to spread it beyond its original scope.  I try to do this with students, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  I try to do it as I look at situations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.  I could talk about other ways I've tried, but the sentences would look a lot like the previous two.

Here's where I get confused:  There is a lot of evil in our world.  I am not convinced that looking only at the good is going to eliminate the bad.  I think we need to shed light on the dark places just as we need to magnify the light that already exists, so it can shine brighter.  When I say shed light on the dark places, I mean recognize that they are there, because ignoring them won't make them go away.  It might make life feel a little more pleasant, maybe a little easier.  My fear, however, is that ignoring the bad may make us feel less responsible for doing anything about it.  We need only look at history, and given the heroine of this post, let's say something like the Holocaust, to see what happens when good people ignore the bad things happening around them.  More bad...

"We are all sometimes good, sometimes bad" (Herz-Sommer again).  Of course, I believe this to be true.  I tried to teach my students this very thing.  I'd say things like, "The SS guys who worked in the camps probably went home and hugged their kids and kissed their wives.  They weren't 100% bad," or "People in prison are not 100% bad; they did bad things, but who of us would want one horrible thing we've done to be the definition of who we are?"   These were not popular statements.  Luckily, they weren't meant to be; I threw them out to get some thinking going on...Some great discussions resulted.  At times I, too, need the reminder that we're not 100% good or bad or whatever.  When I am ready to completely write off a person...or an entity made up of lots of people...I need the reminder.  My Love Thy Neighbor poster I talked about a few posts ago helps me not to write people or entities off, but sometimes it's hard not to and sometimes it takes me time and work to get to that point.

So where does the balance come in?  How do we know when focusing on the good is going to amplify it to the point of eliminating (or at least greatly diminishing) the bad and when we truly need to turn our attention to the bad, because if we don't it will grow out of control?  I don't have an answer.  Sometimes when I write these posts, I really really wish I were talking to you (though my spoken words often come out much more of a jumbled mess than my written words do), so I could get your thoughts right now on whatever it is I'm pondering.  Writing about brokenness was one of those times.  This is another.  I know there are a lot of wise people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do.

Maybe it's a matter of catching the bad early on...seeing it when it's a few grains of bad surrounded by a beach of good.  Then maybe focusing on that good can transform the little bit of bad.  Those few bad grains might just work a little harder to be good ones, if the good ones are getting the attention, right?  (Ha, did you see how I just made each grain 100% good or bad?  Oops.)  Positive reinforcement.  Of course, that's easier said than done.  We humans seem to be drawn to the bad.  Just look at the newspaper.  I'm sure there are just as many good things going on, but they're not often part of the daily news.  And, of course, with so much evil that's already at the exponential growth point now, we missed our chance to catch it early on anyway.  Now what?  Am I saying our world is hopeless?  No, I'd never say that.  I don't believe it.

I recently met a woman who is a laughter yogi.  I met her at a Couchsurfing meetup (that she happened to organized) and she is definitely all about spreading laughter and love.  Cool woman.  It's hard not to be joyful when you are around her.  She's brimming with ideas about how she can spread laughter yoga and how we can engage the creative spirit that is within each of us.  Her enthusiasm is contagious, definitely good kind of contagious.  Let me go back, though, because you may be thinking, "I don't have a creative bone in my body."  If you're thinking that, let me respectfully disagree.  We're all creative beings; it's just a matter of figuring out where our creative energy flows best.  For some of us it's in the arts (where creativity is easily recognized).  For others it may be in the way we interact with people, knowing anyone wherever he or she happens to be in life.  That is a beautiful use of creative energy.  For others it may be in fixing things or growing things.  There are so many ways we create...

Can bringing our bright creative energy into the dark places transform them, simply by having our light there?  Maybe that's the answer.  Maybe it is the simple (ok, perhaps not simple) act of bringing our light to the dark places that transforms them.  Maybe it is our bright presence that is transformative.  Maybe the problem comes when we fear that nearing the darkness with our light will consume us rather than our light consuming the darkness...and so we try to escape the darkness rather than meeting it and embracing it.  Yes, I just wrote that we should embrace darkness.  Candles do it, right?  Alice Herz-Sommer did it by refusing to give into the darkness of the concentration camp.  She didn't let that darkness consume her.  And here she is at 108 years old, still burning bright.


  1. I look at her statement as more of a reason she lived so long than as ignoring the bad.
    I would imagine that focusing daily on the good around her and the love she saw and gave made her happy and was healthier than angst and depression over things that in daily life were out of her control. JMO

  2. Thanks, Kim. I think maybe my saying she "ignored" the bad was a poor description. I definitely believe in focusing on the good and think you're probably right about it contributing to her (continuing) long life. The question I have for myself is about how I can change the bad I see around me and what responsibility I have to try to do so. I see and have experienced enormous good in my life. Is the act of sharing all the good I've experienced enough to change some of the bad? That's what I was trying to get at in the last paragraph. Bringing light eliminates darkness... it's not ignoring it, but transforming it.