We have been asked to read The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness as part of our class in Leadership, Restorative Justice, and Forgiveness.
The Sunflower is an autobiographical account by Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish man condemned to a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. The story takes its name from the sunflowers that he saw growing on the graves of Nazi soldiers. The flowers reappeared as a recurring theme, and symbolized the unthinkable disparity between the aggressors and the victims of war. He wrote hauntingly, "Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb" (Wiesenthal, 1969/2008).
The primary dilemma of the story emerged when he was summoned to a military hospital and ushered to the death bed of a wounded SS soldier. The dying man grabbed Wiesenthal's hand and then offered his last confession, almost by force. As he unburdened his soul, he confessed to participating in the mass killing of Jews. He was haunted by one experience in particular when his unit locked several Jewish families into a house, then set it ablaze with hand grenades, while they stood guard outside. One family, including a small child, jumped from the burning house, and were gunned down by the soldiers.
The dying SS man sought absolution by confessing his crime to a Jew, any Jew who would listen. He wanted to die in peace, but Wiesenthal responded with silence. He could not bring himself to speak.
After telling his soul-wrenching story, Wiesenthal asked, "Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?" (p. 97). He did not respond to his own question; rather, he left the question for others to address. He wrote, "You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'What would I have done?'" (p. 100).
In the second half of the book, dozens of philosophers, theologians, and political leaders offered their responses to this poignant question, with many of the responses contradicting one another.
Few books have affected me as much as Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower. It speaks to the heart of justice and forgiveness, but it offers no easy solutions - no tidy answers. I am left in the darkness of my own soul to respond to Wiesenthal's challenge: "What would I have done?"
And now that you've read my post, what would you have done? Perhaps you will respond in the comments.
Note: The photograph in this blog post was taken at Lincoln Park in Spokane, WA. The flowers are arrowleaf balsamroot, not the sunflowers that Simon Wiesenthal would have seen in the military cemetery.
Wiesenthal, S. (2008). The sunflower: On the
possibilities and limits of forgiveness. [Kindle version]. Knopf Doubleday
Publishing Group: New York. (Original work published 1969)
My relative Marie Grant celebrated her 90th birthday yesterday at Northern Quest. She and I both descend from the Chewelah band of the Kalispel Tribe, and from the same common ancestor. We have occasionally collaborated on our family tree, and she has encouraged me in our traditional ways. She is a beautiful woman, a gifted historian, and a cherished elder. I'm proud to know her.
Two nights ago, I dreamed that I embarked on a long journey to the south, but a wickedly powerful dust storm blocked my path. This kind of storm seemed more suited to Arizona or some other desert location, but not Spokane. The image of my home town covered in billowing clouds of hot sand was surreal and otherworldly.
For a while, I battled the blinding sand, but I finally stopped. Then I got angry and found my clarity. I said, "Why should these storms block my path when I can fly?"
Like a rocket, I flew straight up into the sky. I passed through the heart of the sand storm, and eventually emerged through the top of the clouds. When I broke free of earth's atmosphere, the stars appeared in brilliant clarity. It was an awesome sight!
But then the spirit said, "There's something you have to see."
Still flying like a rocket, I was led to the planet Venus. I settled into a low orbit, and when I looked down, I saw the burning, tumultuous clouds of the second planet in our solar system. I was mesmerized by its fiery beauty, but the spirit said, "You need to see the storm brewing on the dark side of Venus." I continued toward the other side of Venus, and I was amazed to see massive flashes of lightning that cracked the face of darkness.
True reconciliation is not cheap. Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing. ~Desmond Tutu
This is freaking awesome!!! These children recited Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in the Colville-Okanagan language. They held my attention to the very end, and now I want to do a Spokane version: čn ep sqeys...
kʷtunt lemlmtš Salish School of Spokane!!! unexʷ qʷamqʷmt!
This semester, I am taking a course at Gonzaga University called Leadership, Restorative Justice, and Forgiveness. So far, the course has been an exploration of the restorative justice model proposed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa that recommended reparations for victims of Apartheid and amnesty for offenders who made a full confession of their wrongdoing. This model is radically different than the retributive justice model we tend to favor in the United States, but I am open to learning more.
Consider the following quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
"We contend that there is another kind of justice, restorative justice, which was characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence. Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment. In the spirit of ubuntu, the central concern is the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense."
Tutu also wrote, "In the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, inexorably the perpetrator was being dehumanized as well .... They need us to help them recover the humanity they have lost."
Desmond Tutu mentioned that the restorative justice model was based in traditional African cultures. This makes me wonder what model of justice was accepted by the pre-contact Salish.
These photographs were taken near East Valley Springs Road
So many people have worried, cried, prayed, and sent positive thoughts for the recovery of my cousin, so I am happy to report that he is making a dramatic improvement. When I visited the hospital this afternoon, he was sitting on the end of his bed and talking with the nurse. He recognized me right away, shook my hand, and then gave me a hug. What a remarkable change!
We spoke for about twenty minutes, but he doesn't remember much of what happened.
As I left his hospital room, he gave permission to send this picture to everyone who has expressed concern. He hugged me again and said, "Love you cousin."
The snow arrived suddenly and cast a gray shadow over the world. It reminded me of another quote from Owning Your Own Shadow: "To honor and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime."
(Photograph from the Hillyard Adult Education Center, 1/7/14).
Shelly Boyd, this post is dedicated to you. This is a painting I did last year with my own homemade mixture of tulmn (red earth) and gum arabic. You said you wanted to see me make a tulmn painting, and here it is. Maybe some time you can claim your painting, put it in a frame, and hang it on your wall.
My father would have celebrated his 66th birthday today, but I wonder how many people still remember. Every year, the seven days surrounding the anniversaries of my father's birth (Jan 5), death (Jan 8), and burial (Jan 12) have become Days of Remembrance - almost religious in their personal significance. This year is especially meaningful because it is also the twentieth anniversary of his passing.
No matter the time and distance, my sadness always returns to visit during these seven days, like an old, faithful friend. The sadness is not nearly so heavy as before, but it always returns.
This year my thoughts also turn to my Uncle Richard's family. I've had twenty years to adjust to a world without my father, but my cousins are just beginning that road. Every holiday, birthday, and anniversary will bring a strange mix of sadness, confusion, memory, and love. Nothing makes that path any easier, except perhaps to know that others help carry the weight of grief.
Early in my own grief process, I would have given anything to banish the darkness and pain from my mind. Sometimes it seemed too much to bear, and certainly many well meaning friends also encouraged me to pick up the pieces and move on, but sadness always returned. I've come to realize that we live in a culture that is immensely uncomfortable with darkness and grief - either in oneself or in others. What is more, I saw myself as a spiritual person dedicated to light and growth, so even I wondered how it was possible for the darkness to cling so persistently to my spirit.
If they would have given me a pill to cure my sadness, I would have gladly accepted. Actually, at one time, I did take pills with names like Paxil, Wellbutrin, Celexa, and Effexor, but they did nothing to alleviate my distress.
Time doesn't really cure all wounds, but it does make them bearable. Now I have enough distance to view the grief from a different perspective, and this year, I intend to approach this week with a new-found acceptance of both light and darkness.
My friend Tim recently loaned me the book Owning our own shadow: Understanding the dark side of the psyche by Robert A. Johnson. This book essentially says that the darkness within us never really goes away, but it can get buried. If we don't find ways to honor the shadow, it comes out sideways with difficult and unpredictable results. Johnson (1991) wrote, "To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents" (p. 26).
Honoring the shadow seems counter-intuitive. We spend much of our lives trying to banish, avoid, overcome, resist, minimize, or ignore the shadow, yet even Jesus reminded us: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). After all my dark nights of grief, the sun has become all the more brilliant and the blooming flowers of spring sing more sweetly than before. Was any of this possible without first passing through darkness?
Johnson wrote, "To own one's own shadow is to reach a holy place - an inner center - not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one's own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life" (p. 17). He also said, "I have to honor my shadow, for it is an integral part of me" (p. 22).
I've heard it said that compassion literally means to "suffer with," so this year will be different. Beginning this week of remembrance, I will honor both sadness and joy because they have given me the greatest gift of all: love.
The dry stalks of stinging nettle.
The sun setting near the Little Spokane River.
The sun was reflected in a pool of water.
These fruits look like rose hips, but the plant does not have any thorns.