I was 30 something, about to be married. Living in Sonoma County I decided to go to a “seconds outlet store” in the lower Market Street area in San Francisco to look for a wedding dress. As my mother and I made our way down the sidewalk, we stepped over a man sleeping under a blanket. When we approached the door to the store, another person was curled up in the doorway. Again we stepped over him to enter.
On our drive back to Santa Rosa my mother told me she had left the store while I was shopping. Giving some money to each of the homeless people, she also spent a few minutes talking to each of them.
Seeming so far from my reality, I just wanted to pretend they didn’t exist. But, the fact that someone had to sleep on a sidewalk continued to bother me, upsetting a certain inner balance I thought I had. Keeping this feeling alive in me for many years, I eventually had children of my own, who started asking questions about the homeless people they saw on the streets of Santa Rosa.
In my son’s school, he initiated a project to feed people who were hungry, making sandwiches each week, distributing them in the “railroad square” area, where many folks spent the day. In addition, my children decided to volunteer at the Redwood Gospel Mission kitchen that provided hot meals for those who would otherwise go without.
I mention these events because I feel there is a natural tendency to “turn away” from situations and scenes that are disagreeable; that disrupt our view of the world we want to see. I have been guilty of this. I have done my share of “turning away;” at the same time, choosing certain historical events, such as the Holocaust, and asking why no one did anything to stop this horrible situation from happening. Why did no one step up? I discovered when I asked these questions about the Nazi behavior during the Holocaust, that many people did step up, albeit secretly and anonymously, because to do so, great risk was involved. Good people hid families, adopted children and helped smuggle many out of the country.
And it wasn’t just Jews who were persecuted, tortured, and put to death. The exterminations included Gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped, resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Blacks, Mormons, Free Masons, as well as many others who disagreed with the tenets of the Third Reich or who did not fit into Hitler’s idea of an “Aryan Master Race.”
In Europe, the German artist Gunter Demnig has been installing what he calls “stolpersteine” or “stumbling stones,” meaning to stumble across or to “find out” something. His goal is to bring to light and remember those individuals who were often called out in the middle of the night, and led away to their deaths. Each stone starts with the words, “Hier wohnte” or “Here lived.” He has placed over 70,000 of these small 4-inch square plaques in the sidewalks in front of these individual’s last known residences. Sometimes there are multiple stones, each with a name of an individual who was taken from that home. This is the world’s largest decentralized memorial, according to Wikipedia.
Demnig’s idea is that, buried in us all, is the tendency to turn away, thinking that a given situation has nothing to do with us. He wants to bring to the light of day the fact that we need to look at what we, as a civilization, have inherited. James Baldwin writes of this in many of his novels … that many slaves were led away, with a rope around their necks, while others stood by or turned away, doing nothing. And though we are here today, and were not witness to any of this, we can now consider how each one of us “turns away” when faced with something that is not pleasant, or not right.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This quote from philosopher George Santayana, is a potent reminder of some important wisdom.
If we turn away to avoid knowing something wrong is occurring, then we are also encouraging it to continue. It seems, that in the present reality, in which we live, it is good to acknowledge that place in each one of us that wants to “turn away,” and consider making another decision.