Trouble will come on its own, and there is no fancying it a stimulant to one’s creativity…. The clean and simple appreciation of ordinary, daily things, is a treasure like none on earth. –Kathleen Norris, The Virgin of Bennington
I was wary about participating in this workshop on Holocaust education because I knew it was dangerous. The Nazis aren’t throwing me to the sidewalk, they aren’t starving me or beating me. But we’ve discussed the secondary trauma of hearing these stories. That sounds almost too embarrassing to mention. When you’ve been in the room with a survivor of Auschwitz all day, it sounds ridiculous to complain about anything.
As the first survivor talked, I felt, viscerally, what Buddhist teachings preach so insistently: suffering is suffering. It’s all connected. When you pull up one line of pain, you can pull up every fish and shark and shoe out there. My chair was suddenly the bleacher in the gym on the morning after my student was shot to death. I walked blocks and blocks at every break we got, trying to physically shake off the evil that had settled on me.
Some people who approach pain are masochists. When I was younger, I had the impressive pain of a family divorce to dazzle my friends. I still sought some suffering, a yearning to mourn, as some artistic right of passage or juicy material.
The baby boomers, in general, are our talkers. Many of them think talking helps. Maybe Vietnam, and the way they did not evenly share their generation’s suffering, makes them more desperate to talk things out. After these weeks studying the Holocaust, I wonder about the wisdom of talking. Am I more kind and sensitive, more likely to be politically active, after hearing these horror stories? Not necessarily. And do the victims feel any catharsis? I don’t know. Is it worth the pain it causes me to listen? Is it right to make other suffer even a shred of what you suffered? What justifies handing on the pain?
I know that people who love me have sometimes refused to tell me some stories of their lives. They spared me shock, and spared themselves reliving the agony. And I don’t press them. I’m grateful. Pain doesn’t necessarily mature or deepen a person. We can be drawn into others’ pain for the sensationalism of it, or to reinforce our own fears, or convince ourselves that we are toughened up to face some future crisis that may never come.
The explanations that intrigued me most came from the same survivor, a woman who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. Are you more invested in social justice as a result of your suffering? Where other survivors had said yes, of course, this woman said no. I’m too afraid to stick up for anything. I’m too afraid of any authority noticing me. I’m terrified of authority. Police, of course, but mailmen, too. Are you healed by writing these poems? another person asked. No, she said. I write because I like to write. I don’t feel any better. It doesn’t change anything.