We are flesh and bone. We are various mixes of self preservation, parental instincts, generosity, nature and nurture, fight or flight. We’re ideas and mistakes, feelings and regrets. We are passion and compassion, fear, worry, and we are love. We are people. Each of us is potential. Sure, we have potential, but by existing, by living, by being healthy and safe, having or being able to make opportunities, we are potential. Each of us is precious.
A friend linked this FB video of Henry Orenstein today. I’ve seen many like this one, beautiful stories of endurance and triumph and innovation, of life after terrible trauma like the atrocities of the war, Nazi camps, the things people do to each other. And the things we do for each other.
As we fight against the policies and agenda of our current government – policies and agenda that line up almost perfectly with how the Nazis came to have the power they had in WWII – I am reminded that I don’t just work to reverse the direction we’re going for me. I am 50; I won’t be around much longer. I work to reverse it for my son and his fiancé, for their children if they choose to be parents, for everyone’s children here and on other continents. I want to avoid making the mistakes we made almost a century ago for so many reasons it’s difficult to list them, but the main reason is potential. I want to be sure those who come after me have as many possibilities, as many options, as they can. I defend against the current policies and agenda specifically to preserve the planet and as many people, as much potential, as I possibly can while I’m still here.
This week, there were more mass shootings because ‘Murica. For a brief moment, I even thought we might do something about the lax gun laws and lack of support for the mentally ill. I thought maybe we’d begin to take the time and money that will be required to put facts and critical thinking back into education. Education seems, to me, to be an excellent way to begin to shield Americans from propaganda aimed to make them stupid and/or angry enough to hand over their power to extremists or foreign powers. Education helps us to reason, to think, to seek out facts so that we can make informed decisions, to behave like rational adults. Education helps us to discover and understand our place in society, in the country, in the world, to have empathy for those outside our immediate circle. It helps us see the big picture.
As happens each time we learn of a person intentionally taking the lives of others, my hope for solutions was short-lived. We add up those losses like they’re numbers, but they’re not; every one of them represents the human they were, the lost potential. Imagine the potential of as many Americans and immigrants as possible, as many people as possible, having food, clothing, and a home. Imagine if people have whatever education they need, as well as the peace of mind of health coverage, so that they can focus their thought and energy on living, growing, learning, thriving, inventing, producing, nurturing? Imagine.
Mr. Orenstein, as a young man, gambled with a lie he told the Nazis that he and all four of his siblings were scientists and mathematicians. His hope was the lie would buy them a bit more time surviving in the concentration camp; if he lost the bet they would probably all be killed. Mr. Orenstein won the bet (though not all the siblings survived the camps), and when the war was over he immigrated to New York.
We live in a different world now. There is still war and terrible atrocities, senseless suffering and death, and much of it is still about religion and power. That part has not changed, but we are exceedingly cautious about accepting immigrants now, leaving the bulk of the burden of helping refugees to others. We can afford to help. We can’t afford not to, really, but instead of doing our part and sharing that burden, we sit at home making excuses. The rich, those with the most power to help, perch high atop their pile of wealth and plot how they’ll take more from us. When we see the carnage on TV we say “someone should do something,” but we let our politicians convince us that even one “bad” person immigrating to the United States is reason enough not to help anyone at all. By that logic, none of us should be here. It just takes one to spoil the whole batch, right?
Ack- sudden scary thought – is that why we’re getting the shit tax bill to replace our health care law? to get rid of the whole batch of Americans and start over? Sorry, random thought pushed to the back of my mind. Back to the point. . .
The “burden” of accepting immigrants, especially refugees, has high potential to pay off shortly with new, educated citizens. These citizens are workers and employers who assimilate into our society contributing their knowledge of cultures and languages different than our own. (not like the Borg – okay kind of like the Borg – but I’m being serious here!) They bring with them new points of view and appreciation for life, for survival.
The “burden” of educating our population, working diligently to be sure no students fall through the cracks, pays off very shortly with critical thinkers, rational adults, ready to get out into the world and apply what they’ve learned, to contribute, to earn, to pay taxes. They invent, they support, the expand on ideas, they crunch numbers, they operate machines, they create and produce, they find new and better ways. Education helps our citizens to find and realize their potential.
Offering affordable health coverage (including mental health) and reducing the risk of violence gives all citizens, natural-born and naturalized, the peace of mind and the space to blossom into the problem-solvers, the laborers, the inventors, the nurturers, the artists, the thinkers, the educators, this country needs so desperately. These are the people who feel free to take a chance, to try new ideas, to create new jobs, to expand, to share.
Each of the millions of individuals the world lost to the Holocaust had the potential to be or do anything. Each of the millions of people we lose to gun violence is lost potential. Each person we lose to untreated mental illness, to untreated physical illness, to poverty, to lack of education, to extremism, to violence, to discrimination, is lost potential. Some of us might choose to raise loving, caring citizens. Some of us might choose to find a cure for cancer. Some of us might choose to buy the very best vegetables for our employer to sell to us and to our neighbors. Some of us choose to build basements, the foundations for homes for families. Some of us might choose to find a better way to collect or to store the sun’s energy. A very few of us will choose to hurt people. Many more of us will choose to treat and comfort those who are hurt. And some of us will choose to find justice for those who are hurt. Some of us will choose to teach, to nurture, to expand minds. If given the opportunity and the choice, many of us will do great things, and the vast majority of us will do good things. We will be heroes.
“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” – Bob Dylan
Mr. Orenstein was given the opportunity to come to America. Somehow Mr. Orenstein had the opportunity to invent toys and to build them and market them. One person’s survival despite years of torture in a concentration camp in Poland meant we get to enjoy his toys, among them dolls, the Transformers, and his camera for poker players (I would not gamble against this guy). That same person’s toys lead to movies. Mr. Orenstein’s toys mean jobs for his company, for advertisers, for retailers, for families, support for workers, insurance, money paid in for taxes and Social Security. He is a husband. He is an employer. He is a gambler. He is a citizen. He’s not just a story of hard work and perseverance and a bit of luck. He’s an example of potential realized.
This is the condensed story of one man of many men and women to survive those horrid camps. But many more did not survive. Millions of men, women, and children of all ages were murdered for their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, occupation, or just because someone did not value life and chose to abuse their power over another human being.
Each individual we lose is lost potential. Millions of people with the freedom and opportunity to do what they have the potential to do? The possibilities are endless; it boggles the mind. Yet we think nothing in this country of squandering potential, leaving our citizens without support, in the name of “safety” or cost savings.
I understand that many of us have opportunity and don’t use it, but we have the choice. Just having the choice is so very precious. Some of us take our opportunity and use it to do harm. That is almost always also a choice. My point is that every person we lose to premature death, to murder, to illness, to lack of opportunity due to discrimination, to inescapable poverty, to turning them away to die in war because of their religion or skin color, etc. is literally an incalculable loss. The vast majority of us, given choices and opportunities – food and shelter, love, education, security – will use those opportunities to improve ourselves and the people and world around us. If we have the opportunity to realize our potential most of us will take it and give back with interest.
The loss of one individual like Mr. Orenstein is only an example of what we are gambling with when we don’t value every person in our society, when we don’t offer them a chance. We all deserve a chance to realize our potential.
Edited 17 June 2017 to include link to Stonekettle post on health care as a right.
Link typed out to FB video on HistoryBites: https://www.facebook.com/HistoryBites/videos/1773924329534947/ – Of course, he didn’t “teach the world to play” like it says, but his life is a reminder of what we can be and what we can lose.
Link: (Added 17 June 2017) The Right Question – by Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station
Link: The Nazi Rise to Power – The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Link: “Ramadan in Yemen: Fasting by day, starving by night” – by Khalid Al-Karimi and Mohammed Al-Sameai of Aljazeera
Link: The Holocaust Explained