“In any free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty - all are responsible.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
I have spent the last two weeks trying to process what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia and what lessons, if any, can be drawn from it. In many ways, it shattered illusions about the past and present. I am a graduate of the University of Virginia and spent some wonderful years in Charlottesville. Now it is the a city that forced my son to come to grips with the pernicious nature of racism and anti-Semitism. He recently discovered that people he had worked with in the past were active participants in the neo-Nazi, white supremacist movement and participated in the Charlottesville march. He related that his belief that society had progressed beyond this was proven wrong and that he no longer thought “we were now better than this.” A few days later he shared with me the above quote from Rabbi Heschel, who more than 50 years ago marched next to Martin Luther King over the bridge in Selma.
How do we deal with reality when faced with hatred, ignorance, anger, and other destructive emotions? Right now, we are experiencing it on a societal level, but we also experience it in different contexts in our communities, our religious organizations, our workplaces, and our families. I believe it is a fundamental principal of the universe that everything that occurs in the macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm and vice-a-versa. I am not comparing a KKK march to an unreasonable boss at work, but the emotional experience of victimization are similar. This is where I was struck by the depth of the Rabbi Heschel’s words.
I believe that the Rabbi is telling us that the actions of the alt Right in Charlottesville are “effects” for which those involved are culpable. Every effect, however, has a “cause” and for that we must look into our own hearts and minds. How did we create a society that breeds this type of hatred (or elected Donald Trump)? What is my responsibility in the creation of that environment and what can I do about it? Heschel is telling us that we should acknowledge our responsibility and look at the big picture (poor education, too many people in prisons and the gang culture of the prisons (e.g., the Aryan Brotherhood), economic dislocation, unofficial segregation, and increasing gap between haves and have-nots).
This same exercise is important and vital in all aspects of our life. What are the causes of issues and conflicts in our business, our family, our community, our marriage, and within ourself. It is very easy to get angry and respond to hate with hate, and sometime confrontation is inevitable and necessary. Nevertheless, we should step beyond our anger, hurt, and feeling of victimhood and understand how we are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in and what can we do about it. Do we need to confront, do we need to walk away, or do we need to reframe the issue? Taking responsibility for the causes of your situation is not about feeling guilty or blaming the victim. The perpetrators most bear their guilt and the consequences of their actions. For the rest of us, it is about acknowledging your power to respond, change, grow, and enlighten others.
This is not close to the first time we as a country have faced these issues. The evidence of our failures is everywhere from burned out inner cities to the drug epidemic running through rural America. The question my son was implicitly asking was “can we be better than this.” By taking responsibility and using our power to change, we can make better individuals, families, work environments, communities, and, maybe, a country.
I pray the Charlottesville becomes an inflection point. Charlottesville is the home of Thomas Jefferson and the university he founded. He was a brilliant man who, like most human beings, did not always lead a life that reflected the beauty of his ideas. May this be the time when all of us take responsibility to try and create the community that Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence, but that he and the rest of us failed to make a reality.
I believe that this must start at a micro and macro level by not getting too caught up in the emotion of the effects and looking through to see and address the underlying causes that keep us from being what we can be.