This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1 here. — Ed.
My mother didn’t die when so many others did – and so lived to give birth to me. I write about this now, because it has everything to do with today, even though the cataclysm in which so many perished happened more than 75 years ago.
This is how I began part 1 of this story, which tells how my mother’s family, Dutch Jews, escaped the Holocaust in which at least 75% of Holland’s Jews perished.
As the first article explains, my great-grandparents’ kindness in raising a German Jewish orphan during World War I gave my grandparents the opportunity to protect and hide this woman and her family when, as adults, they were smuggled out of Nazi Germany. My grandparents’ act of generosity in giving shelter to this family gave them the knowledge of what was really going in inside Nazi Germany (which was little known outside Germany at that time), and also put them in contact with an early resistance movement that could support them in making plans to leave Europe.
Of course, nothing repeats itself exactly and things usually turn out somewhat differently than we expect. Yet, we humans seem to look to the way things have been in the past to set a rudder for what we might expect in the future. This tendency can make us resistant to the possibility of rapid and dramatic change. Yet it can also help us learn from times of rapid and dramatic change that came before.
What can this personal story from the past tell us about the times we live in today, especially facing what scientists have called the Sixth Extinction of life on earth?
1. Have the courage to consider the worst possible outcome, even though it is not certain that things will turn out this way.
For my grandparents, this meant considering that Germany would invade Holland, even though many people did not believe this would happen. It also meant considering the possibility that the Nazis were doing something much worse than sending Jews to Labor Camps (which is what people were told – and which was certainly bad enough but was nowhere near as bad as the truth).
For us today it means considering the worst possible scenarios for climate catastrophe, and for what our government may be up to. The future course of the climate crisis we are facing (along with the interconnected crisis of our civilization) may not be precisely or fully knowable. Yet, given the enormity of the stakes and what we already do know, what happens if we consider a worst-case-scenario as a starting point in determining what is most important for us to become and do?
Are we living within an emergent fascism? How would that look? How will we know? What are we already seeing today? Erosion of civil rights, elimination of privacy protections, militarization of our police forces, increased repression of people of color, rising Xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia….the list goes on. How might things look and feel to people in one of the groups being targeted? How might we know when things go from bad to a new level of beyond-worse? How will people of European ancestry know what’s truly happening with marginalized groups? What preparations should we be making now?
How might climate crisis and emergent fascism be interconnected?
2. Even though it may not be possible to alter the mega-picture of the storm gathering on the horizon, make your best guess about what might happen, what is most necessary to survive, and how much can be saved. Then find your part and get to work!
From my wide reading about the Resistance during World War ll, especially among Jews and those trying to help them, this meant:
- Get out those you can get out (what happened for my family).
- Hide and care for those you can’t get out.
- Resist and slow down the pace of destruction. Support life any way you can. (For the Resistance in World War II Europe, this included armed resistance, which I am specifically not advocating in this article).
My grandparents’ early connection with a group that helped Jews get out of Europe made it possible for my family to escape – and in turn, for me to be born. I owe my life to foresighted and brave people, whose names I will never know, who were willing to risk their lives (and may have done so) to save others.
When people say, “there’s nothing you can do” about any of the multiple, intertwined crisis we are facing today, I often respond that the fact I am alive refutes this assertion.
Then, I share a two-sentence version of my family’s story.
Small (or not so small) things really do make a difference, often in surprising ways.
Fortunately, a lot of people are already trying to find the best ways to respond, and a lot of forms have already been created. Different people will have different opinions on what is best, and where is the right place for their passion, abilities and energy. How effective any of these diverse things are is yet to be seen. (I have my own opinions – which are way beyond the scope of this article.)
If what is already being done does not seem to be enough (in one sense, as with the Holocaust, nothing would be enough) then what else can be done that is not yet being done? Be relentless in looking at what seems most valuable to do. If one thing seems ineffective to you, it doesn’t mean everything is ineffective. Join in with something that is already being done that feels meaningful for you – or create something new.
Can we get people through the coming cataclysm? What about polar bears? If not larger mammals then, what about cats? Rats? Hummingbirds? Amidst the Sixth Extinction any species we can save is precious.
Ultimately, some future person or being, animal or tree, may owe their life to your actions, even though they may never know of your existence or of your name, just as I do not know the names of all those who risked their lives so I could be born.
To my understanding, habitable planets are rare in our universe, and the evolution of complex life and ecosystems is even more rare. This phase of evolution on our planet is precious. How much can we save for the future?
3. Recognize that the depth and meaning of your life, along with your own soul purpose and spark of brilliance, are intertwined with the challenges and turmoil of our times.
“The inner seeded story of the individual soul is secretly tied to the great drama of our world,” writes mythologist Michael Meade.
The place where these things join together is where you will find the greatest meaning in your life. Crisis will shape you, change you, bring out things within that you never suspected were there. What you do (or turn away from doing) will shape you. Stretching to be your largest self will change you. Offering of yourself, to others, to the future, will widen your vision and horizon – and deepen your life’s meaning.
Be willing to step into, not turn away from, the crisis of our times. My grandparents, a musician and artist, were lovers of beauty. They were unlikely people to step into acts of questionable legality, then abandon their comfortable lives and multi-century history with their country for the uncertain life of penniless refugees. It turned out to be a good thing that they were willing to step into this uncomfortable place – for them, for my mother and for me.
Offering to others and offering to the future will widen your vision and horizon – and deepen your life’s meaning. Your life may grow and expand in surprising, meaningful and beautiful ways. There is a great gift to self in offering of yourself to others, to the future.
My great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ willingness to stretch themselves to help others proved to be what saved their lives – both physically and, I believe, morally and spiritually. My grandmother’s words to me as a child convey a truth that is both literal and metaphorical: “Because we risked ourselves for others, we ourselves were saved.”
I grew up wondering about the people in Europe during World War II. Who were the people that turned away, who refused to look at the terrible things happening to others, sometimes literally right next door to them? And who were the people who did not turn away, who risked their lives for others?
I wonder the same thing today, when I look at the potential for global climate catastrophe, knowing that, like everything else, it will be those who have the least who will feel the impact the most. I wonder that same thing when I see rising tides (in our country and Europe) of anti-immigrant hostility, xenophobia, Islamophobia. We won’t all do the same thing in the same way, just as those who resisted the Nazis did not all practice resistance in the same way. The important thing for each of us is finding the right things to do – and doing them. That may just save your life – your spirit and soul life, and possibly your physical life as well.
Perhaps it all comes down to what may be the one essential question of our times – How can we be worthy ancestors for our descendants (human and otherwise)?
— Dianne Monroe, Transition Voice