Tag Archives: morality

A Day in Hell: Exploring Humanity At Its Worst

“We all have a Monster within; the difference is in degree, not in kind.” –Douglas Preston, The Monster of Florence 

Hello friend,

For a guy who thinks of himself as a bearer of all things GOOD in this world–Love, Peace, Kindness, Compassion, and Inclusion–I am regularly shocked and disturbed by my deep fascination with our history of absolute awfulness toward one another.

Truly, I cannot quite understand how the study of large-scale human evils captivates me, but it does. As a lifelong film buff, one genre that has consistently drawn me in is War movies. Watching them—some of my favorites are The Thin Red Line, Schindler’s List, Platoon, Casualties of War, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Black Hawk Down–I am usually sick to my stomach from start to finish, aching from the anguish felt by all of the families who lost their loved ones in the fighting, aching for the wasted potential of these beautiful lives, and aching from the ignorance, greed, and senselessness that led to it all.

I have almost no tolerance for either violence or senselessness in my life, and it seems like war is both of those things in their purest forms. It is the absolute antithesis of me. And yet, there I sit, glued to the screen when one of these films is on, unable to deny the entrance of this purified evil into my heart and mind. I allow it in. I must. That is how it feels, anyway.

I have never been one to turn away from reality intentionally. I may have been in unconscious denial a time or two, but I want to know the Truth of the Life around me. That includes the Darkness that runs counter to the Light I try to shine. Though I look for the good in the world everyday and in the people I meet, I am aware of the bad. Because of my curious nature, I feel compelled to dig deeply into each as it comes.

So it is that, when I watched Platoon when I was about 13, I was absolutely mesmerized by the very awfulness of humans. We were worse than I had ever imagined! We were inhumane. I had to understand this somehow.

I watched more movies, of course, but the thing that held my focus far better was the Holocaust. I was aware that there had been many, many attempts at genocide over the course of history, but there was something about the Nazis and the Holocaust that overwhelmed me and drew me in simultaneously. Maybe it was the sheer numbers—six million people murdered. Maybe it was the machine-like, efficient nature of it. Maybe it was America’s complicated involvement in it, first in looking the other way and later in helping to ending it. Maybe all of those things, but definitely because everything about it—the systematic and unfounded demonization of a people of a people that became “subhuman”, the absolute unfairness of their treatment even before their removal from their homes, the silence of the “good people” near and far, the horrors of their treatment in concentration camps, and of course, the gas chambers themselves—reflected this mesmerizing inhumanity that I have never been fully able to wrap my mind around.

I can’t stop learning about it, because I have a compulsive need to understand things. Because I still can’t quite comprehend how we could have done this, I keep trying to see it from a new angle, something that will deliver me from this agonizing bewilderment.

I have read many books on the topic. I have written reports on the sociological factors that were at play in the rise of Nazism and the subsequent persecution of the Jewish people across Europe. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC a few different times, choosing to carry that awful heaviness around with me all day instead of visiting dinosaur bones, art galleries, or monuments. I have been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and tried to put myself in her shoes. All of that was painful but definitely helped me to understand.

But by far the single most impactful experience of my obsession with inhumanity—and truly one of the very few most memorable and painful days of my life—was the day I spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the concentration camp in Poland where 1,500,000 people were murdered. That is 1.5 MILLION! The sheer volume is hard to fathom, I know, but it is essential to grasping the depths to which human depravity can sink.

I had planned for that day for some time and tried to steel myself for what I was to witness. As was the case for everything in this strange fascination of mine, my mind was divided between eagerness to learn about it up close and repulsion by the very thought of standing in the heart of darkness, literally following in the footsteps of humanity at its absolute worst. As it turned out, nothing could prepare me for the experience.

After a full day of touring the camp alone, I made it to the train station and melted into the cold metal bench outside. As I waited for the train to come to take me back to Krakow, I opened up my journal and let it all drain out of me. Here is what I wrote:

18:12 Saturday 19 September 1998 Ośwìecim, Poland

I don’t know how to begin. Truly I do not. As I stepped onto the grounds of the place, I felt something. It was small, but it was there, deep within my core. It surely began there, but there it did not end. What it was that I speak of, that thing that began there, was a cancer. And with each photograph and each display and each fact on each wall in each building, that cancer spread. I could feel so distinctly each new cell it overran. There is that place in the chest and gut that hurts so much and feels so hollow when someone loses the one he loves. That space can only be the soul. It was in that space, definitely, that the cancer began. I knew that place. At first it felt as though a surgeon with a dull, jagged scalpel was cutting it out of me slowly until he had every last bit. But then I realized that it was not being excised from my innards. Rather, there was no surgeon but instead the horrible, painful cancer. God, did it hurt! Like I was being slowly shredded from the inside out. When I knew it had every last cell in my soul, it passed slowly through the rest of me. With each new image in my face, a new cell it engulfed. It was the agony of a slow death. There were just so many images, so many visions of horror. It would not ease up on me. And there was nothing I could do to save myself. I was on the train. It flowed into my lungs and made breathing a constant struggle. I often had to stop to force out a breath and suck another one into my constricted chest. The python had me wrapped up. I was dying. It seeped into my stomach and intestines, cramping me and doubling me over with nausea. My hips and shoulders were next. They tightened and fought for every move. I was being decimated by this awful virus. I was feeling so helpless. It overtook my neck. Movement was painful and breathing nearly impossible. Still the images continued to flash. Images like the room about 100 feet long by twenty feet deep full of hair that piled over my head, hair from exterminated millions of human beings, cut to make cloth for the living. And images like the young girl’s three identification photos taken on entering the camp. Her hair was awfully shaven and she was desperately fighting to hold back the tears and be strong. Images of the standing cells no larger than my shower at home that were enclosed in brick darkness and made to hold four suffering men at a time, standing the night through after twelve hours of labor and no food or water. It was images like these that kept the cancer spreading. It went into my thighs and upper arms. I couldn’t move them much anymore, but the cancer seemed to force me along as it overran me. It took over the rights to my extremities near the end. I could just sense that I held a bit of my mind for myself yet. But it was still creeping. When I wandered through the old barracks, dreaming in the endless stacks of wooden bunks three high and uneven, I could see the emaciated, sick, and filthy men, women, and children wallowing there in the cold at night, climbing over one another and onto the muddy floors to shit or piss, if they had the strength to. I could feel them being tortured, beaten, and brutalized. And I could sense their knowing that their sickly vessels would be undressing to be gassed and burnt any day. That this was the end of some awful, awful sickness. Soon would come Deliverance. But still they were there. Still sick and hungry. Still scared. Still horrified. I could see all of this. And when I walked through that sick, sick gate at the end of the railroad track where the vast unchosen majority went immediately and all went eventually—down the stairs into the undressing room and into the showers of Zyclon-B and to the crematorium—when I walked through that gate, the cancer took all of me. I was a puddle of horrified cancer. I looked into that murky pool of water where the ashes were dumped. It was thick and ugly and mushy and awful. I thought, this is what I have become today. This is what this whole experiment, this unspeakable atrocity, amounts to. It is a murky puddle of ashes. A pool of death. Every one of us is there in that ugly mess, all of us wet and sick and dead. All of us ashes. And this is Auschwitz-Birkenau.  

It is hard to read that even now, 19 years later. The images still haunt me. The thought of all of those unique, special individuals—1,500,000 of them in that one place and 4,500,000 more in other camps like it—dying because someone chose them to be demonized and so few of the “good people”–including their neighbors and including people in America–stood up to the injustice of it. It still has the power to make my stomach turn.

I have made the effort to understand the darkness in each of us and the greater Darkness that we have all contributed to in events like the Holocaust or human slavery. I know the Psychology and the Sociology, even the Philosophy. But sometimes, like on that grey Autumn day in Poland 19 years ago, all of the knowledge in the world cannot shelter my heart and soul from being torn to shreds by the utter depravity of which we humans have proven ourselves capable of time and again.

I suppose we need the reminder though, at least occasionally. Because when I hear the rhetoric of certain politicians who seek to demonize certain groups based on religion or skin color, and when I watch their supporters march down the streets with flags and torches and swastikas, when I see these things and hear people trying to ignore them or normalize them, I feel like I owe it to those six million Jewish people who died in the concentration camps to remember how it all started and how the silence and denial of the “good people” allowed it to continue.

If I am to face up to the Truth of the Life around me in its entirety—not just the good stuff—I also need to draw the necessary parallels to our past and do my best to see that we do not go so deep into the Darkness together again. That is the best way I know to see to it that those six million did not die in vain. I will face the Darkness for them.

How about you? How deeply are you willing to explore the very worst aspects of our inhumanity in order to understand us more completely? Open up your journal and consider what you allow into your consciousness. Do you let yourself be open to the heartless and vile ways that groups of humans often treat each other? When you look at things like slavery, genocide, and war, what do you think their pervasiveness across history says about humans in general? Are we as evolved as a species as we like to believe we are? How much different are we than the other beasts? Are humans more special than other species? If you like to think of us as highly evolved and advanced, how do you explain the baseness and depravity that seem so common across cultures and time? Do you allow the things like genocide, human trafficking, and war to get under your skin and really pain you? Is there a big enough majority of good in the world to overshadow all of the bad that we do and keep you somewhat in denial of it? Are we better individually or collectively? Does humankind’s propensity for evil fascinate you like it does me? What massive failings of humankind do you take the time to truly study? Wars? Slavery? The Holocaust? Apartheid? Genocide? Environmental abuses? Racial injustice? Sexism? Abuses of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples? Does your greater understanding of an issue make you more or less upset about it? Which topic are you most likely to take a deep dive into next? Even understanding all of the horrific ways in which we have treated one another, do you still have hope for the future of humans? What is the worst thing we have done? How do you explain that to yourself? Leave me a reply and let me know: What have our moral failures taught you? 

Rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s be real and grow together!

Dear Mr. President: an open letter

“In America, anyone can become President. That’s the problem.” –George Carlin

Hello friend,

Don’t you ever wish you could get the undivided attention of the leaders of the world and give them a piece of your mind? You know, just sit down over a beverage and try to get them to understand the world from your perspective or try to change their mind on a few things. Or maybe you imagine yourself as the principal and them coming into your office to sit while you stand over them and read them the riot act (my elementary school principal was a frightening dude, so this visual works for me!). Maybe you want to praise them for their wisdom and their class in handling a recent crisis, or perhaps you would rather berate them for the way they have let your country lose its place in the world order. Whatever your agenda, I bet you have imagined one of these conversations (or monologues) with some leader somewhere along the way.

Well, I am not sure if you have noticed, but the guy who lives in the White House these days seems to evoke some pretty strong sentiments from the citizens of the country he is charged to lead. I am one of those citizens.

I have read the Tweets and watched the press conferences. I have studied his appointees, his agreement withdrawals, and his proposals. I followed the seemingly endless presidential campaign very closely, and I have continued to follow the presidency.

It would be an understatement to say that I have an opinion on the matter. I can’t imagine that anyone in America with a head above ground does not have an opinion on the matter! But you know how delicate, emotional, and often combative political discussions can get. It can be hard to be fully honest and feel safe. And sometimes, just for our sanity, we try to bury our heads about what is going on, right? Because with one dramatic turn of events after another, to fully process them all just might be unhealthy.

So I was thinking this week that with the news cycle a little more off politics and onto other disasters, this might be just the time to think a bit more clearly about how we might address this polarizing character at the head of our government. And what better way than our journal, of course! The safest depository for sensitive or inflammatory ideas. It’s perfect! And so, a letter to the President….

Dear Mr. President, 

I am writing to you today because I would like to get some things off my chest. These are just from me. Though my political bent is definitely to the liberal side of the spectrum, I don’t affiliate with any party and don’t wish to speak for anyone but myself today. One voter, one citizen.  

I’m actually a deeply concerned citizen. Frankly, I don’t appreciate your style of leadership or the direction you are steering our country from a policy perspective.  

As far as your personal leadership style and the way you come across as the figurehead of America, I am a deeply embarrassed citizen. I have followed several Presidents in my lifetime and have disagreed with many (sometimes most) of their big decisions or policies. I never deluded myself into thinking any of them were saints. I don’t need my President to be a perfect soul. However, your words and actions have failed just about every moral test I can imagine.  

I often think of this stuff in terms of my children and how they would see it or be affected by it. Up to this point in my life, I can imagine thinking it would be really cool if the President—from either party–were to come to their school to address them or to come by our house for dinner. Despite our political differences, I believed the President would act with class and grace and be a good example to my kids. Now, if given those opportunities, I would keep my children home from school that day and deny the dinner request. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of what you might say or do. That’s a shame.  

I find it disturbing and disheartening how often I hear or read or think of your actions being characterized as “beneath the office of the Presidency.” I don’t need to make the list—it seems that you follow your press clippings closer than I do—but again, it is enough to make me feel bad for the kids. “The Office” seems to be now permanently diminished for your successors. With so few things left in the world to feel some reverence for, it saddens me that you have singlehandedly robbed all the future kids of our nation of something special.  

And again, it is not as though I was expecting a beacon of morality when you entered the office. Whether through your history of housing discrimination, the Central Park Five, birtherism, the Mexican rapists, the anti-Muslim stuff, mocking the disabled, and the Access Hollywood tape, it was clear long before the election that you were—both publicly and privately—anything but a model for social justice and inclusion. Still, I held out a sliver of hope that even if the presidency didn’t chasten you a bit, as others predicted, that it might just tone down the frequency and blatant nature of crassness and bluster.  

I probably would have settled for you just stopping the Tweets. But no, you seem intent upon throwing gasoline on any sparks you may have ignited and making volatile situations exponentially worse, doubling down on your missteps rather than walking them back (never mind apologizing). For someone who bragged so often of his presidential temperament along the campaign trail, your absence of wisdom, grace, and simple personal control is frightening.  

Probably by now you have guessed that I am not much of a fan of your policy proposals, either.  

If you hadn’t already lost the respect and support of people around the world by the time you pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement—if you recall, the polls suggested you were already vastly unpopular globally—that was certainly the moment, for me, that it felt absolutely obvious that the United States was no longer to be considered the leader of the world, and maybe not even ONE OF the leaders. It seems that in trying to “put America first,” you ended up placing America last and all by itself. The feeling I came away with was, again, embarrassment.  

Your recent plan to revoke DACA, your anti-Muslim travel ban, your pardon of civil rights violator Joe Arpaio, your encouragement of police to be more rough with suspects, your ban on transgender people in the military, and your wink-wink “denouncement” of neo-Nazis and White supremacists following the nightmare in Charlottesville—not to mention the many things you said and did prior to becoming President—have all created an atmosphere in which so many more people in our country today feel unsafe and unsupported.  

I am not here to argue about whether or not you are a White supremacist, but what I do want to make perfectly clear is that your words and your actions have helped create an atmosphere in which White supremacists feel increasingly emboldened and comfortable as a part of our everyday, “normal” society. If you truly are not a White supremacist, I hope you are appalled by that. It seems that you are not.  

One of the things I have noticed since you became President—and for a long time I could not quite put my finger on it—is that the country seems to be suffering from a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is this extreme sense of apprehension in the air, like we are constantly worried about which calamity will show up in the next news cycle. Who will you have offended? How will you embarrass us next? Who is getting fired? Which of my loved ones am I going to have to comfort? Who will I have to march for? Are you going to be impeached? Are you getting us into a war? 

With your itchy Twitter finger and your raw nerve of an ego, we just don’t know what madness will await us when we wake up the next day. This state of heightened anxiety, multiplied by that that awful feeling of vulnerability for so many of our citizens based on your actions, is perhaps your most damning legacy.  

So yes, it’s true that a small part of this is just that I wish we had elected someone whose political leanings were more like mine. I am disappointed that the environment is under fire, that climate change is being denied, that your return to “law and order” is leading to increasing injustice, that solid contributors to our society are being sent away, that you cannot find a way to get more people access to health care at a lower price, and that you seem intent on widening the gap between the rich and poor. I am fairly sure I would feel much of that disappointment with anyone from your party in office. I am used to that sense of loss; I can deal with that.  

So you see, Mr. President, my takeaway feelings from your time in the White House are not direct results of you and I not sharing a political party. No, instead I get two overwhelming sensations when I think your effect on our country. The first is embarrassment. I feel such shame that during the campaign you showed us exactly who you are, and we still elected you. We have lost our place in the world as result, and for me, I have lost any sense I had that we are a country to brag about and that others might look to for an example, that “shining city on a hill” that one of your predecessors often described.  

The second overwhelming sensation that overtakes me when I think of your presidency is sadness. As I mentioned earlier, so much of how I view these things is as a parent and a teacher of future generations. Growing up, I always thought of the President as someone who, in public at least, spoke and acted with class and represented America in a dignified way. The kids today get a guy who mocks the disabled at campaign rallies, famously talks at work about sexually assaulting women, and frequently calls people “losers” in public. It doesn’t seem fair to the kids.  

It saddens me that you are the guy that this generation of kids has to see as the example of what the President acts like, and it embarrasses me that the world is watching us and that I have to explain to my own kids that their fellow citizens knew who you were and still elected you. That is a difficult conversation. The embarrassment is for me. The sadness is for the kids.  

So, Mr. President, I wish I had more words of praise for you, because I would much prefer to be doing that right now. Despite all of this, however, I am still hoping, as I was the day you were inaugurated, that you will find a way to temper yourself, to control your ego, and to act in a way more befitting of the leader of a great country. I am still hoping that you will open your heart and your mind to the greatness of the people of this country—ALL of the people: not just the White, male, straight, and Christian ones. I am still hoping you will choose words and policies that make all of us feel safe and respected and welcome. And finally, I am still hoping that you will close your Twitter account. I wish you and your family good health and happiness. 

Sincerely,

William

How about you? What would you like to say to the President? Open up your journal and unload your thoughts. Remember: it is a safe space; no one will ever have to read it but you. As is the case every week, I only shared mine as a jumping off point for you. My guess is that your letter will look a lot different than mine. But how? Is your letter more complimentary? What specific things would you like to praise him about? What about the other side: what specific issues do you want to berate him about? Charlottesville? The Wall? The travel ban? Dreamers? Health care? Climate change? Would you like to address his character and the example he is setting for children? How much of what you would say is driven by what you were expecting when we was elected (whether you voted for him or not)? Has he disappointed you relative to your expectations, or has he been better than advertised? What do you want him to do more of? Less of? Would you share some personal stories of how his presidency has affected you and your loved ones? How can your words help him? If you are mostly angry, how can you find words that are both a release for you but also helpful to him? Do you think there is anything you could say to bring about a positive change? I dare you to try! Ask yourself: What would you like to say to the President?

Speak Truth to Power,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Let us help each other to use our voices for good!