Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas 2017 - What's In A Simple Greeting?

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Some attribute this quote to Socrates, others to Plato, still others insist (more accurately) that it was first framed in this way by Ian MacLaren (a nom de plume of Reverend John Watson) in the 1890s.

I would submit that the attribution ultimately doesn’t matter.

It is a simple truth that has probably been presented in many different ways over the millennia. It lives quietly alongside the recognition of the “lives of quiet desperation” that Thoreau noted over a century and a half ago, yet has existed within our collective psyches for untold generations.

Some might wonder as to why I bring this up at a time of the year associated with celebration, joy, gift giving, and reaffirming connections with friends and family.

And the answer is once again found in the quote with which I opened this writing. So often, with the best of intentions, we may be tearing open wounds in others that we know nothing about. When we reach out with the expectation that Christmas – or, more broadly speaking, the “holiday season” – is a joyous occasion for everyone, we are assuming a great deal.

I hope my meaning here is not misconstrued; I believe that it is almost always out of kindness, a desire for connection, and a sincere intention to reach out that these holiday greetings are offered. This is especially true for those who have a strong religious connection to the holiday itself.

Yet it is a greater kindness – and a way of honoring the experience of others – to simultaneously be aware that a religious salutation that is strongly associated with a particular time or season may be coupled with a great deal of painful history for many of us. For those of us who wish to honor religious diversity, such a consideration becomes even more important as we watch an extremist minority – whose figurehead now occupies what is the most militarily powerful political position in the world – act to effectively weaponize the phrase “Merry Christmas” against an ecumenical paradigm. (The pretender to the American throne stated on Christmas Eve that he was “proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase.” But that is a subject for another post.)

My friend Jennifer Mazzucco framed it clearly and succinctly: “faking it through the holidays” can be very painful. I’m sure that those of you who are experienced with “faking it” get this immediately, and it is my hope that what I write here might be of help to you. You are most emphatically NOT alone.

For those of you who may not have this experience, I hope it might be illuminating.

I’ve found myself having to “fake it” for the past decade now. On Christmas night 2007, exactly 10 years ago TO THE HOUR from the time I write these words, my mother Nancy Wertheimer
Nancy Wertheimer
agonizingly drew her last breath – only my brother was there at the time. I don’t believe that anyone other than my brother really saw it coming … I know I didn’t.

It remains the most devastating loss I have ever experienced, and it permanently altered everything Christmas had meant to me. In a moment that is seared into my soul memory, hearing my sister say the words “she’s gone” was like having a backhoe scrape my heart out of my chest onto the floor.

My mother (most of us called her “Ma”) was simply the most kind, loving, generous, perceptive, compassionate and brilliant person I have ever known.

She was on one hand a Harvard PhD psychologist and internationally renowned epidemiologist who uncovered the link between high-current electric wires and childhood cancer, on another a fantastically gifted painter, stained-glass artist and sculptor, and on yet another, a powerful and fiery woman who built several cabins herself from the ground up in the Colorado mountains (having taught herself the disciplines of architecture and carpentry).
Ma at work sculpting driftwood 

One of her greatest joys in life was coaxing beautiful artwork out of pieces of found driftwood, whittling away in the sun on her front porch in Boulder.

And still, with all this, she always found time to be the very best friend I could ever have prayed for, with a ready ear for anything and everything, with great wisdom to share as life threw all of its crazy twists and turns at me.

As I realized that I would never again hold my mother in my arms, never speak with her again, and never be able to quietly sit with her in the common but unspoken reverence we both had for beauty, another deep truth about my experience of Christmas began to reveal itself.

My grandfather Max Wertheimer
This truth was part of an old multi-generational family wound – the kind of wound that rarely reveals itself. Our family had celebrated Christmas – at least in part – in an attempt to somehow “normalize” the fact that my father’s family was forced to flee Germany when he was only six years old because they were Jewish (and, worse yet, my grandfather, Max Wertheimer, was a famous academic).  Unbeknownst to me until quite late in my life, two of my great aunts died in the Holocaust. One in them was killed in a concentration camp (a fact I only learned two years ago), and the other killed herself rather than allowing herself to be abducted by the Nazis.  

My own Jewish ancestry was also unknown to me until an episode in my fifth grade year. I had just seen a film in school about the Nazis, and when I came home that afternoon, my father asked me about what I had learned that day. In answer, hoping to be entertaining and dramatic, I raised my arm in a Nazi salute, saying, “Heil Hitler.”

My father’s face lost all color, all expression … and he wordlessly turned and left the room. After what seemed like much too long a time, now more enraged than shocked, he returned and said angrily, “Don’t EVER do that again.” Once again, he walked away, burying himself in his work – his salve of choice when dealing with emotional pain.

No explanation. No context. Nothing but a stern directive and a confused sense of something much darker than I had ever suspected that lay hidden within the collective subconscious of my family. Now, decades later, I think I’ve come to terms with this wound – and the emotional sleight of hand that enabled our “normalized” (and certainly secular) Christmas celebrations.

To put it concisely, Christmas was simply a way we pretended we weren’t Jewish.

And now, this year, Christmas seems to be presenting itself as the day of recognition that another of the most beloved soul mates I’ve ever known – our sweet, sweet dog Barkley – will have to leave us soon.  
Our beloved Barkley

After nearly two years of doing everything we can (including 24/7 supervision for more than a year) to give our beloved boy the best life possible as he’s faced increasing dementia and extreme mobility issues, Heather and I question if the quality of life he’s experiencing now is worthwhile for HIM. And I’m sure those of you who have had to deal with such a decision will understand how hard it is to choose to end the life of someone who is utterly precious to you.

So at this point it probably goes without saying that I’m just not going to be receptive to even the most well intentioned exhortations to celebrate this holiday, this time of year….

… and just as I began writing this, another friend wrote me to let me know she had lost her younger brother on this Christmas morning. From this time forward, how festive or celebratory could this time ever be for her?  

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Sometimes that kindness might take an unusual form … a look, a hug, an honest question, or a deep and silent expression of empathy or compassion in place of what might feel like a meaningless repetition of a clich├ęd salutation. 

Or, to quote my respected friend Jennifer Mazzucco more fully:
For so many it is a time of grief, depression, loss and sadness. Please allow others to have their space and don't ever force them to celebrate something they don't want to. Faking it through the holidays can be painful... for those of you out there who get this or are feeling this - I stand with you silently and am sending you love.” 

As do I.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hiroo Onoda - The Loyal Soldier

 In 1974, Philippine authorities became very concerned when they received reports of a Japanese soldier who had been threatening and apparently even attacking local villagers in a very remote region of the island of Lubang. Plans were put in place to deploy a special task force to subdue, capture or, if necessary, kill this soldier, who had already used deadly force on several occasions to prevent locals from approaching his position - one he had apparently defended for decades. The identity of this soldier was a complete mystery, given that the last known Japanese soldier in the area from World War II, lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, had been officially declared dead in 1959.

A Japanese student and explorer named Norio Suzuki, 
Norio Suzuki
who knew of Lieutenant Onoda and believed he might still be alive, became aware of the situation and asked the authorities for permission to approach (at his own risk) and communicate with this soldier, hoping to determine why he was so intent on protecting/fortifying his position in an almost uninhabited location. This permission was granted, and the young student went on a search for him in the hills of Lubang. Upon finding him, he waved a white flag as he approached the aging soldier, calling out
"Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you." Because he had used a well-defined wartime protocol - and called to him in Japanese - Norio Suzuki was able to go directly up to the soldier and ask him why he was so adamantly defending this location. The soldier - who indeed turned out to be none other than Lieutenant Onoda, having held his position for three decades - replied, “I am a soldier and remain true to my duties.” 

Hiroo Onoda at age 22

Onoda had received orders directly from his commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, to defend this position at all costs. 

It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens well come back for you, the major had promised.

All but three of Onoda's brothers-in-arms fled or were killed as American forces landed on Lubang on February 28, 1945. One of the three surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were eventually killed by Lubang police officers.

There had been several efforts to communicate with Onoda and his comrades, but sadly they had resisted all such attempts to get them to surrender, dismissing the Japanese search parties and leaflet drops as "enemy trickery." The leaflets were filled with mistakes, and Onoda judged them as a plot by the Americans. 

The Japanese student Suzuki told the lieutenant that the war had been over for three decades, and - dutiful soldier that Onoda was - it was no longer necessary to defend this position. Lieutenant Onoda firmly replied that he would not stop doing so until he received direct orders from his commanding officer that he could now lay down his arms and allow others to approach this site. Stunned at first, Suzuki felt that there was no way he could peacefully conclude this seemingly intractable situation - and then he was suddenly inspired to ask the name and position of the soldier's commander. Onoda told him that it had been Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.  Armed (as it were) with this information, but fearing that he had almost no chance of finding this former military official, Suzuki was determined to return to Japan, find Major Taniguchi, and bring him back to this place to rescind the orders he had given so forcefully long ago, allowing Onoda to finally surrender.

After researching military history and records in Japan, Suzuki was indeed able to locate Major Taniguchi, who had long since retired and was living a civilian life as a bookseller. And thus it came to pass that the retired major returned to Lubang (at the request of the Tokyo government) to finally fulfill his promise. Japan had lost the war, said Taniguchi when he finally stood in front of his loyal lieutenant, and Onoda was at last relieved of duty. 
Hiroo Onoda and Yoshimi Taniguchi

The time-worn soldier sharply saluted his former superior officer, then wept uncontrollably.

Still sobbing, Onoda handed over his rifle (which he had kept in pristine working condition for three decades), approximately 500 rounds of ammunition, a few hand grenades and, finally, a dagger gifted to him by his mother when he was first deployed overseas.

Hiroo Onoda surrenders his sword to Ferdinand Marcos

As he arrived at the Lubang Island Police Station, he bowed to the people assembled there and laid down his weapons, saying, “I am Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda and I have received orders to surrender to you.”  On the morning of March 10, 1974, in Manila, the lieutenant, wearing his old Japanese military uniform, gave his sword to President Marcos in a traditional gesture of surrender. 

Although Lieutenant Onoda had killed at least 30 people in as many years, Ferdinand Marcos granted him a full official pardon, and Hiroo Onoda at last returned to Japan.

Hiroo Onoda and Norio Suzuki arrive in Japan March 1974

The central metaphor and lesson embodied in this tale of the loyal soldier invites each of us to ask what may be a very painful question: What defensive tactics or "orders" do I tenaciously cling to when they no longer serve me or those close to me (even though they may have served me well in a different time, place, or circumstance)?  When we explore this question fully, and step into surrendering behaviors and patterns that clearly no longer serve us, we open to the possibility of a powerful transformation into a new life.

By 1984 the Loyal Soldier Hiroo Onoda had taken what he had learned in the jungles of Lubang and founded the Onoda Nature School, a youth camp focused on teaching wilderness survival skills to Japanese youth.

I submit that this Loyal Soldier archetype also extends beyond our individual psychology, so that it can take root in a culture, a religious or ethnic group, or a nation. Examples that come to mind are the incitements to ethnic cleansing by the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that explicitly used the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 as a rationale, or similar Crusades-era thinking that is taking root here in America that feeds the anger, fear and xenophobia of today's political climate in the United States. 

Some modern psychologists and philosophers have embraced the Loyal Soldier archetype as one that can deeply inform – and help us address – our dysfunctional behaviors and perspectives (on a cultural as well as individual level).  

Animas Institute founder and psychologist Bill Plotkin defines the Loyal Soldier in his book Soulcraft as “a courageous, wise, and stubborn sub-personality that formed during our childhood and created a variety of strategies to help us survive the realities (often dysfunctional) of our families and culture.” Although this definition is a bit of a departure from the actual story of Hiroo Onoda, the analogy is clear. The Loyal Soldier manifests initially as a noble figure – courageous and stubborn – that may have literally saved our lives as we were navigating the “battle ground” of childhood and adolescence. This soldier may have received orders from us at a later time in our lives where we explicitly needed his protection and ferocity.   Plotkin’s work centers around moving from an “ego centric” to a “soul centric” worldview, and part of this transformation involves “welcoming the Loyal Soldier home," thanking him for his service, and reassigning him to a new task that is attuned to our present circumstances.

Japanese culture after World War II had communal rituals in place that clearly recognized that most of their returning soldiers were utterly unprepared to rejoin civilian society. In these rituals each soldier was, as Father Richard Rohr writes, “publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: ‘The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.’”

Father Rohr (who founded the ecumenical Center for Action and Contemplation) reflects these rituals in a process he calls “discharging your loyal soldier.” When we surrender our outmoded defensive tactics and "orders, we afford ourselves the opportunity to serve at our highest potential, and to give ourselves - and those around us - the precious and truly timeless gift of being fully in the present moment.

Hiroo Onoda "The Loyal Soldier" video 
Music from "Priyagitah" by Benjy Wertheimer & Steve Gorn