Authenticity, Awareness, Family, Fear, Feldenkrais, Holocaust, Perfectionism, Sensitivity

It’s Possible to Drown Out Marching Nazis. What About the Ones in Our Heads?

Image from a rally in Germany. Chosen for the simple “No Nazis!” message.

That 40,000 people marched peacefully in Boston on Saturday against hate groups, including Nazis, gave me hope that civilization would survive, at least for the weekend. While it’s important to starkly delineate what is, and what is not, acceptable in a modern democratic nation, it would be a foolish mistake to believe that everyone on the right side of history lacks even a seed of extremism, brutishness or hate in their minds. That these seeds may never or rarely sprout, or fail to grow into torch-bearing troglodytes, does not mean they don’t exist at all. They might surface covertly in ways that seem “normal” in a capitalist society focused on productivity, or they might fester silently inside a person as self-hatred. Those of us who descend from Holocaust survivors, combat veterans, or anyone else with unresolved trauma may have a surfeit of such seeds, although they are scattered in every human. Indeed, a therapist I saw many years ago wanted to explore how my father’s Auschwitz experience lived on after the fact. To my shock and disgust, he asked me to consider how the household in which I grew up had been like a concentration camp. That he chose such a blunt and inept analogy to broach a delicate subject was akin to a dentist prying a decayed tooth with a rusty hammer and chisel. I soon left. A less provocative question might have yielded more insight about the influence of the past on the present. Still, it’s worth considering that we all live somewhere along what I will call the “Buddha—Nazi” continuum. Spiritual practices that help us choose which seeds to water and nurture, and which to ignore, can move us closer to the Buddha side. First we need to know which seeds are there. You don’t have to wear a swastika, shout slogans in German or march menacingly to be operating, even a tiny bit, from the darker side of human nature. If you’re willing to peer into the shadows, here is what you might find.

1. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order. – Anne Wilson Schaef

Do you expect yourself or others, or the work you do, to be perfect? Do you cringe or feel ashamed when you make a mistake, as if it’s a life and death matter? For Jews in the concentration camps, a misstep often meant the end. Do you flagellate yourself for not living up to high, if not impossible, standards? Lacking compassion for our imperfections, or our imperfect efforts, means we lack compassion for our fallibility and, therefore, our humanity. To never be satisfied with our output means not finding satisfaction in ourselves. Instead of abusing ourselves and becoming our own kapos, we can strive for excellence, appreciate incremental improvements and recognize when something is good enough, rather than focusing on our lack of skill, errors we’ve made, or how far we have to go.

We can also be perfectionistic with others by demanding that they do things in an arbitrary way, even if their own approach or style yields a similar outcome, insisting they meet a standard they can’t or don’t want to, or finding fault in their “good enough” efforts. It’s one thing to inspire others to improve themselves; it’s another to reject or shame people for not being where we think they “should” be or for not living up to our expectations.

2. “Efficiencyism”

The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency. – Aldous Huxley 

Are you always determined to make good time, do things quickly or plan your day impeccably so as not to waste a minute? Efficiency is not in itself a bad thing and we want to be aware of how we are spending our time. There is certainly pleasure and delight in discovering a more effortless way to complete a task or finding a shortcut while driving, as long as we don’t revert to perfectionist (#1) thinking and say to ourselves, “I should have figured that out sooner” (an impossibility!).

But elevating efficiency into a sacred value, or trying to shave minutes or even seconds from regular activities can become a compulsion or the focus of striving. In that case, the mind has become a blinkered Nazi taskmaster, fixated on one dimension of experience to the exclusion of wellbeing, context, richness and depth. As Moshe Feldenkrais, who narrowly escaped the Nazis, wrote in the preface to The Elusive Obvious, “‘Time is money’ is obviously a good attitude to have in business or work. It is not at all obvious that in love the same attitude is the cause of so much unhappiness.” Trying to squeeze complex and amorphous human interactions into a limited amount of time, in order to save time, can actually waste time, not to mention good will. What makes life worth living can take a while to blossom or to reveal itself, just as it takes time for plants to grow. We need to create space in which ideas, relationships and creativity can unfold, rather than trying to optimize everything. Otherwise we risk becoming automatons or angry and frustrated that things are not happening within the time frame our egos demand.

3. Sarcasm

Sarcasm is like cheap wine. It leaves a terrible aftertaste. – Dana Perino

Have you made cutting remarks, whether to sound cool or edgy, elicit laughs or because you couldn’t fully express yourself? Sarcasm conveys ridicule, contempt and bitterness. Who could be more contemptuous than racial supremacists? The Nazis not only murdered their victims, they humiliated them, too (the Daily Stormer even smeared Heather Heyer after she was killed in Charlottesville).

If you ever find yourself looking down upon, or mocking a colleague or anyone else you interact with, even if in the privacy of your head, please get curious and ask why. You might be surprised at what you learn. Such an inquiry can nudge us closer to the Buddha side of the spectrum. Since much of the Internet thrives on sarcasm, do yourself and the world a favor and ignore the click-bait headlines that cash in on ridicule. Such content contributes to the practice and climate of “othering” in which hate can thrive. Even if it feels fun at the start, sarcasm can become a slippery slope.

Note: I make a distinction between gratuitous sarcasm in the context of regular life and making jokes as a way to dispel anxiety when one’s community is under siege. 

4. Conformism

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. – e e cummings

Do you try to make yourself, or others in your life, conform, in either appearance or thought? One of the trickiest tasks is figuring out how to participate in society without either diluting our uniqueness or alienating others. If we camouflage our quirks and eccentricities, or hide our weaknesses, we can slowly kill our spirits and smother our gifts. If we try to look or act like everyone else to not draw attention to ourselves, or to earn praise and a superficial sense of belonging, rather than being cast out as the “other”, we limit our experience.

If we insist that the people in our lives appear or behave a certain way, or follow a particular script, they might not feel comfortable revealing themselves fully. Assuming they still stick around, intimacy can suffer. To some degree, we have to adapt to the world to survive in it. But the extent to which we do so should be a personal choice, not foisted upon us.

Those who came out in droves on Saturday to drown out hate deserve enormous gratitude, ditto for local law enforcement whose planning and discipline ensured that events did not get out of hand. While the strong public showing was and is essential, it’s no substitute for the daily work of nurturing seeds of compassion and recognizing when we’ve neglected our humanity.

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About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.

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