We are all familar with the adage that Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Today, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7000 survivors, who were mostly ill and dying. As every year, many survivors of the camp will visit there, lighting candles and praying, or otherwise paying homage to those executed by the Nazis.
The day is an important one for all of us to mark, not just those liberated from the camps and their families. Today is a challenge to all of us to learn from the past. To learn where racism and hatred inevitably lead if left unchecked.
I was saddened yesterday to read of the death of Mary Oliver. I, and so many other people, have been moved and inspired by her poetry.
Many people posted poems of Oliver’s yesterday in tribute. It is hard to pick a single one, but perhaps the most appropriate is her poem, When Death Comes:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
I think it is fair to say that Mary Oliver did not simply visit this world; she truly was a bride married to amazement.
RIP Mary Oliver
I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. This is the third of Aslan’s books that I’ve read, the other two being Zealot and God: A Human History (which I posted about here and here, respectively). As I did the others, I found No God but God, a worthwhile and provocative read.
The book greatly increased my understanding of pre-Islamic Arabis, a history that I think helps understand some of how Islam developed. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the division between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims than I had before.
Apart from helping foster a greater understanding of Islam and the teachings of Mohammed, I found many of Aslan’s more general observations about faith traditions worth chewing on.
Perhaps most exciting about the book, however, is a promise of what the “next chapter of Islam,” and the replacement of “the archaic, rigid, and inequitable structures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism.” That won’t be a simple move – and Aslan does not pretend otherwise – but I am bolstered by his conclusion that “the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped.”
I think this book is a good read for anyone, but I especially hope it will get some readership from those who fundamentally misunderstand Islam and the teachings of Muhammed, believing it to be an inherently violent faith with no respect for other faith traditions.
I hope everyone had a blessed and wonderful Christmas and that the New Year is off to a good start. Immediately after my holiday travel was completed, I began teaching a J-term undergraduate honors seminar (hence the long time between posts). The course I’m teaching is called Heroes and Heroism.
Heroism is something we often view as beyond us. We think of those to whom we ascribe the label “hero” as different from ordinary people. The goal of my seminar is to help students articulate what heroism is, to be inspired by the acts of a variety of people on whom that label has been placed, and to help them (in the words of Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo) see heroism as “something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.” In the course we examine the lives of some figures of the present and recent past who have been given the label hero. Thus far we’ve had three classes, and some great discussions!
You might find it worthwhile to take a few minutes to consider how you respond to the questions I asked the students to consider on the first day of class:
Name three figures you considered heroes pre-adolescence (before 14 or 15) and why?
Name three figures you now consider to be heroes (living or dead)? What is it about them that inspires you
How do you define a hero and why does heroism matter?
Feel free to comment with your thoughts.