By Bernice Lerner
Can we listen to and learn from those who are no longer with us? In such cases, we cannot hope for mutual understanding, but our spiritual openness can spur inner transformation.
I recently learned about an interesting model of dialogue that involves young people exploring the lives of deceased compatriots. The program, called “Schools of Dialogue,” invites Polish middle and high school students to trace the paths of—and come to know—Jews who had lived in their hometowns. Who were these individuals who walked their streets, owned businesses in their neighborhoods, attended local schools, and worshipped in synagogues that have since been re-purposed?
Jews lived and flourished in Poland for 1,000 years. During the Nazi Holocaust, 90% of the country’s three million Jews were murdered. Each Polish city, town, and village holds a sacred piece of history. By assigning students to search for evidence of lives that had been destroyed—by having them visit archives, take note of faded signposts, and interview survivors and older residents—“Schools of Dialogue” guides foster meaningful, empathic connection.
I am struck by two characteristics of this worthy initiative: First, the starting point is an established commonality: the persecuted navigated the very same territory (i.e., the same alleys and thoroughfares; the same mountains and rivers and forests), as do today’s inhabitants of a particular area. Second, in taking a leap of the moral imagination as part of a close-to-home assignment, the young researcher can experience the flowering of his or her greater self, a self that will more likely care to break down walls of mistrust, hatred, and division in “the hearts of people everywhere.”
Dialogue may be helped initially by the realization of a shared experience. It can be extended beyond the original conversation to a compassionate stance that includes all of humanity.
We humans need exemplars! We must train ourselves to find evidence of the human potential for good in books, newspapers, and film. And, in the life stories of those both distant and near to us.
It is worth collecting a store of biographies of individuals who have struggled and endured, whose actions demonstrate the human capacity for nobility, integrity, courage, and compassion. We thus learn how others have found ways of coping, of overcoming hardship, of responding to difficult situations in thoughtful and constructive ways. Biographies make apparent that benevolence is a disposition of choice, and that we each hold the power to positively impact our world. Intimate knowledge of others’ lives also enables us to follow Aristotle’s advice: When faced with difficult decisions, ask, “What would the wisest person I know do in this situation?”
Plutarch, the first century biographer of notable Greeks and Romans, argued that the lives of noble men and women “arouse the spirit of emulation.” This spirit is not concerned with attaining daunting or unreachable goals, but rather with acting rightly in matters both large and small in the course of our daily lives. Plutarch reminded us that “the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men… sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments.”
Biography brings to the fore not only positive attitudes and attributes, but also human foibles and flaws. We can learn to judge historical and contemporary figures fairly, from a safe vantage point, engaging, as the art historian Halina Nelken put it, in “gossip on a scientific level.” In so doing, we can monitor our own tendencies, reflect on our own choices, and consciously better our responses to what Nel Noddings terms the “great questions of life”: How should I live? What kind of life is worth living? How do I find meaning in life?
We humans are the sum of our choices. We each have the capacity to learn from others, to shape our destiny, and to make our own lives worthy of emulation. Hannah Senesh, a paratrooper and poet who was tortured and killed during World War II, bequeathed the following words of inspiration: “There are stars whose light reaches the earth long after they have disintegrated and are no more. And there are men whose scintillating memory lights the world long after they have passed from it. These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illuminate for us the path.”
Dr. Bernice Lerner is director of adult learning at Hebrew College and a senior scholar at the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University’s School of Education. Much of her work focuses on character and ethics education, educational leadership, and the Holocaust, and her publications include The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors’ Lives (2004).