Sunday, November 18, 2012

Week 7 - Just do the right thing...

"We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have." --Frederick Keonig

We have completed Week 7 of our journey and are heading into a very short week with the Thanksgiving break. I am fortunate to be driving home on Tuesday to spend most of the week with my family. I have always considered myself a "family man" and have never been one to take my family for granted. I tell them I love them every time I leave or hang up the phone. And though my position sometimes requires me to work long hours and miss family functions, I have always tried to be there when it "mattered." I am fortunate that I work for a family-friendly department that allows us some latitude when balancing family versus work.  Still, one of the things I will take away from my time at the NA is that family truly must come first. While here, I have missed work (to a degree) and have certainly missed the people I work with, but my family is what I think about when sitting in my room at night.  The fact that I missed my wife's birthday and my daughter's school awards ceremony and will also miss one of my daughter's birthdays next month are some of the only regrets I have here. Things at the office have run very smoothly in my absence. One of my post-NA goals will be to tip the balance of the scales a little in favor of my family. Long after I retire, I will be left with my family. While I have tried to make a lasting impression on my department through changes and improvements to policies and programs, my children will be my most important legacy. Life is short and tomorrow is never guaranteed. This fact was proven this past week when one of my classmates unexpectedly lost his fourteen year old son to an unknown heart condition during a cross country match. I can't begin to imagine the pain of losing a child.  As I prepare to see my own family, my thoughts are with my classmate who is preparing to bury his son and most likely facing the toughest trial of his life. I would ask you to keep him and his family in your thoughts and prayers, especially this coming week.

This past week has been an eventful one around the NA. We, as a section, had what many believe was the best night yet - International Night. International Night comes but once per session (as some would not survive doing it more than once for various reasons). It is an opportunity for the international students to showcase their respective countries though dress, visual displays, literature, food, and drink. Those of you who know me personally probably cued in on the word "food" and rightly so. Since we have students from countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, and South Korea, I have been looking forward to this for weeks - I was not disappointed. One of my classmates, John summed it up succinctly in his Facebook post that night "Best dinner in 7 weeks!". The international students clearly put forth their best effort and did a great job entertaining and showcasing their countries. You could see the pride they have in their respective countries as they talked about their traditions and served up their specialties. The room was set up like a fair with each student having a table and display area. We were then free to move about and visit (and revisit) each country. I'm not sure how many maple cookies I ate courtesy of Dave from Canada - but it was more than I would admit if I did know the number. In addition to all of the Asian food (with special recognition to South Korea even though I'm still feeling the burn of that kimchi), I have to mention Marcin from Poland (sausage and pierogis), Greg from New Zealand (whipped cream dessert), and Muhammed from Afghanistan (a FEAST consisting of chicken, chickpeas, and hummus among other things). While the whole evening was fantastic, I did see one area for potential improvement. I believe every class could benefit from having a brother or sister from south of the border to represent the culinary exploits of the Republic of Mexico. Other than that, it was perfect.

This weekend we were treated to a tour of the Pentagon thanks to Jackie who serves with the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. Our tour guide was one of his lieutenants who was working there on 9/11. In addition to a very thorough and knowledge-filled tour, he provided a very personal account of 9/11 and its aftermath. It was one of the tour highlights of the session. Without going into too much detail in this public forum, we were able to see some amazing things and were awed by the military might of our country.

Following the tour, several of us took a ride over to the National Holocaust Museum. It is impossible to describe the impact that a visit to that museum can have on you, but it is something that every single person on the planet should have the opportunity to experience for themselves. When you enter you are provided a small booklet where you are assigned a real life victim of the Holocaust. As you traverse the museum, which is organized chronologically, you are able to track your person's experience and fate. The experience begins with Hitler's rise to power. I was pretty familiar with some of circumstances surrounding his rise because I had participated in a debate in my ethics class regarding Hitler as a leader. I had previously discussed Hitler's rise at length with my friend Craig (who was at the museum and was also on my debate team), but we were both impacted by experiencing it so visually through films, photos, and the other displays. One of the most influential photos on that particular display for me showed a regular German police officer and his dog partnered with a Nazi auxiliary on patrol. As a police officer, it begs the hypothetical question, what would American police officers do if the law they were sworn to uphold was suddenly no longer "just" and therefore differed from their personal ethical and moral code? We are fortunate to live in a free society where the Constitution and freedom reigns supreme, but it poses an interesting question, nonetheless.

The most important lesson from the museum was that Hitler was allowed to do something that he did not innately have the power or resources to do. His rise did not happen overnight.  Along the way, people had the opportunity to stand up to him and to intervene, but only after millions had died, did the world stand up and bring his reign to an end.  During the years that the rest of the world failed to stand up and act, Hitler was permitted to rise to power, invade and seize control of Austria and other neighboring countries, take millions into captivity, and finally torture and kill millions of innocent men, women, and children. By failing to act (or in some cases failing to act sooner than they did), various "leaders" were essentially complicit in the atrocities committed. Martin Niemöller said it best when he described his own experience as a German minister, initial supporter of Hitler, and subsequent prisoner (after opposing Hitler).

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -
And there was no one left to speak for me.

While many of us will never be put in a position where our actions or decisions would prevent the next Holocaust, the actions we choose to take (or not take) matter.  For instance, imagine if every time a criminal perpetrated a crime, a passerby intervened rather than being too busy to get involved.  Our crime rate would be greatly reduced.  Whether it is a company cooking its books, corruption within a police department, or members of the clergy and child abuse, how many times have people been in a position to intervene or report something but chosen not to because it was easier or safer to remain silent?  We each have the opportunity, on perhaps a daily basis, to change things for the better by standing up for something or someone.  Imagine if every time a child was bullied at school (or an adult was bullied at work for that matter), someone else, at potential risk to themselves, stepped in to defend the victim.  If the bully then turned on the defender, another person stepped up to defend the defender.   Eventually the source of the bully's power (fear and intimidation) would no longer exist.  Imagine if every time someone told a racist joke or made a sexist or otherwise disparaging comment about someone's appearance, they were called to account for it by someone else rather than encouraged by laughter.  Doing the right thing matters - whether it be a life threatening situation or a seemingly trivial situation.

The museum had several powerful exhibits and its intent is to make you remember what you see there.  It is very effective at this.  Explicit videos of mass murder are shown.  Displays of the gas chambers used to carry out the "final solution" are on display.  One of the most moving displays is a simple pile of shoes.  The shoes were found stored in a concentration camp after being taken from people processed there.  The impact comes from the sight of the shoes which are various sizes and styles.  The shoes smell musty and leather-like.  As you look at the shoes, you begin to imagine the people to whom they belonged.  Another exhibit called "Voices of Auschwitz" allows you to hear, in their own words and voices, real life accounts from concentration camp survivors.  One such survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall said this:

"How do I describe fear?  How do I describe hunger to someone that probably had breakfast and lunch today?  Or even if you're dieting, or even if you're fasting for a day?  I think hunger is:  when the pit of your stomach hurts, when you would sell your soul for a potato or a slice of bread.  I believe that once one has experienced hunger, they will never forget it.  How do I describe living with lice in your clothes, on your body?  The stink.  The fear.  The selections.  The Appells.  The being told when to go to the toilet, not when you  needed to use it.  The using of the morning coffee to wash your face with...and mostly, mostly, death and the gas chambers."

Also on display were a bunk bed from a death camp, a box car used to transport victims to a death camp, hair shaved from the heads of victims at camps, and pictures drawn by children from the Theresienstadt Ghetto who were sent to the camps.  In a particularly moving video, one survivor tells of her decision to give her child to a stranger.  By doing so, she hoped that her child could pose as a non-Jew and be spared the inevitable fate of imprisonment in a camp.  The video went on to feature other stories of those who, despite personal risk, did the right thing and saved lives.  One woman recounted Nazi soldiers tying people together in groups of threes.  Once fastened, they would shoot one person and push the group into the Danube River in order to drown the other two.  The woman along with three other men surreptitiously slipped in to the freezing river and pulled strangers to safety until they could no longer move their limbs because of the cold.  If discovered they could have been shot.  If they had been overcome by the elements they could have drowned.  Still, they did the right thing and saved 50 strangers that night.

Suffice it to say, the experience at the museum was unforgettable, I would recommend it to everyone.  I am more thankful than ever as I prepare to travel home to see my family for the holidays.  Until next time...

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