Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The Sunflower," and the Question of Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was finishing up my last year as a history undergrad at the University of Memphis, and in a moment of desperation to complete a missing requirement, I signed up for a 400 level class on Holocaust Studies. I was terrified of taking that class. I knew how difficult it would be emotionally, and I did not want to do it. I also knew, however, that it would be good for me, and would probably thicken my skin a bit, which I needed. So I bought all 18 books that we were going to be reading that semester, and jumped in. Probably one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

There were a lot of things about that class that have stuck with me. I had never read Elie Weisel's Night before, and that book is so powerful. We watched "Schindler's List," which I had not seen before, and that was intense. Beautiful, powerful, horrifying--I've never watched it again, and likely won't. I will not ever forget it though. The book and subsequent conversation that impacted me the deepest, however, was on Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, which, if you have not ever read, I advise you to do so.

The Sunflower is about Wiesenthal's personal experience with a Nazi soldier who was desperate to obtain verbal forgiveness from a Jew in the face of his own impending death. While held prisoner in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal was pulled from his work duty outside of a hospital and brought into one of the hospital rooms by a nurse. In that room, Wiesenthal met a German soldier who had been seriously wounded and was on the verge of death. This young, Catholic boy was in excruciating pain, staring his mortality in the face, and felt that he needed resolution and forgiveness for the atrocities he had committed before he met God. The things this man had done were, indeed, atrocious. He actively participated, upon orders but without protest, in the violent, horrifying murders of Jewish men, women, and children--including very young babies. He told Wiesenthal every gruesome detail in an attempt to clear his conscience, to obtain forgiveness from a Jew--any Jew. He begged Wiesenthal to forgive him, so that he could meet God in peace. Overwhelmed and unable to respond, Wiesenthal walked away without saying a word. He denied the soldier, who died later that night, his request for forgiveness. This experience impacted the remainder of Wiesenthal's life, and it seems that he never quite came to terms with whether or not he did the right thing, or what he would have done if the soldier had lived long enough for Wiesenthal to formulate a response.

Years later, when Wiesenthal wrote his story, he questioned what others might have done in this situation--what would have been your reaction or decision? That is the question that pervades the rest of the book, which contains responses from more than fifty contributors from all over the world, including the Dalai Lama, Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, and retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski. For Wiesenthal, his refusal to immediately grant forgiveness was spurred by a number of things, including the realization that this young man, who he admits was honestly contrite and remorseful for his actions, still did not seem to grasp the bigger picture--he only saw a label in his desire for forgiveness, and to obtain forgiveness from someone who fit into the category of "Jew" would suffice. Even in death, the soldier did not understand that the Jew he was so desperate to receive pardon from was a human being, not just a category or label. Others Wiesental spoke to later, when he had returned to the concentration camp, agreed with him, adding that one can only grant forgiveness for personal grievances, and that Wiesenthal could not forgive the soldier for his actions, since this man did not do anything personally to Wiesenthal. The soldier would never be able to truly attain forgiveness, because his victims were no longer living to grant it. One of the larger questions that this story poses, I think, is whether we see forgiveness as an understanding or justification for thoughts or actions, and more over, whether forgiveness is in fact an individual right, or the right of the human race as a larger collective.

This is a subject I have struggled with my entire life. I've heard people say that forgiveness is easier for those who have "faith" because they can place trust that, whatever the hurt is in regards to, it is all part of a journey and that the higher power in charge will eventually reveal the reasoning for your pain so that it can be understood, or at the very least, accepted. I don't know about that--I'm sure it rings true for some, but religion can make things far more difficult to accept. Wiesenthal speaks at length about the difficulty that many Jews face with their own faith and belief, especially given the history of the Jewish people and the devastation they have survived over a period of thousands of years. Why does suffering have to be a part of the journey, and is offering acceptance and forgiveness of that suffering a necessary part of life in order to obtain enlightenment? It's a tough question to answer, especially when you remove a go-to response like, "The Bible says so," from the equation. Bottom line, forgiveness is difficult for everyone, and in my own opinion, it comes down to how you process information and experience.

I've heard it said that forgiveness is the acceptance of your past: it is accepting that the past is what it is, it cannot be changed, and forgiveness is the realization that you have completely moved forward without allowing the past to influence you any more than it already has. I have several problems with that philosophy, but the most obvious one that most overlook is that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. You can "accept" that something has happened and move forward, without being able to "forgive" the person or people responsible. You always know when that's the case, too, because it smacks you in the face when you least expect it. You can harbor no ill feelings for someone who hurt you ten, twenty years ago, and then (this has been my experience) you hear about something really wonderful that has happened for or to that person, and all that anger and resentment just bubbles back up from out of nowhere and you want nothing more than to track that person down and spit on them. Time numbs feelings, and makes them better able to be handled and put aside so that they don't influence you on a regular basis, but acceptance that it happened and honestly being able to forgive someone for their actions are two different things.

I also heard someone once say that forgiveness was giving someone permission to hit you again. That's a jaded statement, and I get it because I am the world's absolute best at putting up that invisible armor of protection to keep from being hurt again. You hurt me once, that's it--believe me, you're not going to get close enough to do it again. I don't care how nice I may act to you outwardly, you will not get another chance. However, that statement is little more than an empty justification for not offering forgiveness, and I do believe that forgiveness is healthy and important. Anger and resentment will just suffocate you if you can't let it go. That being said, knowing that you have forgiven someone for a transgression is not the same as being able to ever trust or have a relationship with them again.

I think, ultimately, that forgiveness is very similar to faith--it differs for every single person, and there is no one answer for how to forgive that will apply to everyone. It's personal, it's private, and it's up to the individual to decide whether or not forgiveness is a necessary part of their own personal journey. Here's what I have figured out about my own ability to forgive. Reconciliation is easy for me. I can do that. I can accept what happened, learn from it, and move forward without the event or hurt itself haunting me or keeping me locked into the past. Forgiveness, however, is something that I only offer when someone has been brave enough to hold themselves accountable for hurting me or someone I love. In order to forgive, I expect that person to own up to what they have done. Even if they aren't sorry for what they did, but are sorry that they caused me pain as a result, that is still accountability. I can forgive that. However, it needs to be stated outright. "I am really sorry that I hurt you." "I hate what I did, and if I could take it back, I wouild." "I am truly sorry that you were hurt, it wasn't my intention." "I hate that this happened, I never meant for you to be hurt and I wish I could change it." Those things are all acceptable. Those statements are all honest attempts at taking responsibility, and I can, and will, offer forgiveness.

You know what is not being accountable? "Are you ever going to forgive me?" I cannot even begin to say how many times I have had someone use that on me or someone I know. That's such a bullshit apology. That isn't taking responsibility for the actions that you committed which caused someone else pain. That is shifting even more blame onto the person you hurt and accusing them of being at fault for being hurt in the first place. It is a flagrant attempt to cover up the fact that you aren't sorry at all.

Bottom line--in order for me personally to forgive, I need to know that the person who hurt me is genuinely sorry for the pain that they caused, and that they are mature enough and strong enough to walk up to me, own their decisions or choices, and ask for my forgiveness in an honest and meaningful way. Acceptance and reconciliation are easy. I only grant forgiveness to those who ask for it, and who mean it. I don't lose sleep at night, wishing ill on someone who hurt me, or thinking about why they did what they did. I also don't look for larger meaning in the hurt. That's the beauty of free will. You don't always learn some larger lesson from pain. Sometimes people just suck and do stupid hurtful things because we as humans are intrinsically egocentric and we as a result always think first and foremost about how things will benefit or hurt ourselves before other people. There's nothing wrong with that, we all do it. Not holding ourselves accountable for our actions is something entirely different, and if forgiveness is important to you, then ask for it. Be open, be honest, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Even if, like Simon Wiesenthal, the person you are asking forgiveness from does not grant it to you, at least you will have some sense of peace within yourself, knowing that you were accountable and accepting of the consequences of your actions, no matter how terrible. Ultimately, my own personal philosophy is that asking for forgiveness, and your ability to grant forgiveness to those who ask for it, isn't about the person you hurt or the people who hurt you. It isn't about the event, or the time, or the reasoning or justification of it all. It is about how you are best able to continue on your journey, and what you need to do in order to look at yourself in the mirror with a clear conscience and sleep well at night. It's all about you. Egocentric, indeed.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Working with kids, and how West Side Story just changed my life

It's no secret that the last few months have been rough. I'm grateful to those who have reached out to help and lend their comfort and support. It has truly been a gift.This last week has not been perfect, but it's been a little better. I've been taking it one day at a time, and it's been a battle, but one that I'm feeling better about than before. Enough so that, yesterday after church, I dropped off my husband and son at home and went out to a local school to see their production of West Side Story. Now, this was not a random trip out to see a high school theater production (I am not a fan of West Side Story, despite my love for Sondheim). Let me set this up for you, because you're going to have to understand the background to understand just how important yesterday was for me. Up until two months ago, I spent the last thirteen years working as a private piano and voice instructor, and for the last four years I worked at a music academy, averaging about 35 students a week. One of those students was a young woman that came to me in 2011 when she was 14 years old. She's a natural talent, but had only ever experienced singing from the choral and show choir perspective. Since she was interested in doing some theater, a lot of the work we did together was not so much technique (though of course that was a part of it), but how to relax and stop trying to make the sound so "pretty" and pure (if you're a theater singer, you get what I'm talking about here). We focused on musicals (classic all the way to modern) and I started introducing her to some jazz standards and torch songs, which she warmed up to quickly. We worked on warming her tone, watching how her voice reacted to her posture and body movements. We also did a LOT of work on just building trust and confidence--her trust in me, our trust in each other, and her trust in herself.

Almost a year ago, my student (I'll call her Amy) came into lessons and told me that her school was going to be doing West Side Story for the Spring 2014 musical. She had done a few shows, and was starting to attract the attention of her directors and other students. As such, she felt a lot of pressure to perform well. The bigger problem was that, because she is beautiful and sweet and has a fabulous voice and sunny disposition, her directors had a tendency to type-cast her as the good girl leads, regardless of voice part. She came in afraid that her directors were going to want to cast her as Maria, despite the fact that Maria is a Soprano I part (up to a high C). Amy can hit a high C, but it's at the very top of her range. There's no question that this girl is an Alto, and a low Alto at that (she can sing a low D with ease). She is also Filipino, and she was worried that she might actually be cast as the Maria because of her ethnicity. She was unsure that she wanted to play Maria, despite it being the lead, and I couldn't blame her. I think Maria is a terrible role. This girl needed to be Anita. We started preparing a full six months before the auditions were even announced, so that she would feel confident going in.

We spent the entire summer working on Sondheim and jazz. Interpretation, diction, movement, feeling, and finding a part of herself in every single song she learned, no matter what. I remember we spent a month doing nothing but Broadway songs that we both hated, just so she could learn how to find something in any song, no matter how awful, that she could identify with as an actor and person. Authenticity was the focus. I also spent a LOT of time just talking to her about her thoughts on the audition, and encouraging her to go after what she wanted. I don't know how many times I told her, "Don't let them decide who you are going to be in this show. Show them who you ARE. If you want Anita, go get her. It's your part--they just don't know it yet." By the time auditions came around, she was confident in what she wanted, and that was Anita. Who can blame her, Anita's the best part in the entire show. For the first round of auditions in November, she went in with one of Anita's songs prepared, and she nailed it. After she sang, she moved over to the cold-read section of auditions, and she was given Maria's script. She looked at it, looked her director dead in the eye, and said, "I'm not auditioning for Maria. I'm auditioning for Anita." No question, no room for argument, just pure confidence. This is a sixteen year old girl, how ballsy is that?! The director just blinked at her, and said something akin to, "Uh, okay. Um, well, sure, here's Anita's script then." Again, Amy went in there and nailed it. She was so excited when she came into voice lessons the next day. She got called back (there was no question she would), and texted me the minute call backs were over. In her own words--"I KILLED it!" The cast list was posted the next week, and she was Anita. She did it.

Two months later, I had a job offer I couldn't turn down. I left my position at the music school to go to work for the city, and that meant leaving my students. There were several that were just really painful to say goodbye to, and Amy was one of them. I promised her that I would come see her in West Side Story when it went up in April, and she gave me a balloon and a beautiful note telling me how much I had done for her, and that I had made a real difference for her. It was very sweet. Fast forward to a couple of days ago. I got a text from Amy telling me that the show had opened the night before and it had gone really well, and that she hoped I would be able to come see it. I admit, I had forgotten the dates and probably would have missed it if she hadn't texted me. So on Sunday, after church, I went to Kroger and got her a small bouquet of roses, and went to go see West Side Story. While sitting in the packed theater (completely sold out show), I started chatting with the mother of one of the chorus kids, and mentioned that I was there to see a former voice student. When she asked which part Amy was playing, I said she was Anita, and this woman's eyes got as big as saucers. "YOU taught her voice? She's amazing, she steals the show! Do you teach in the area?" I laughed and told her no, but referred her over to my former music academy for her son. It was a good feeling. Then the curtain went up, and I could barely contain myself, I was so excited to finally get to see Amy perform. You'd have thought I was her mother, not just a former teacher. I was in no way prepared for what I saw when she finally appeared on stage.

She was dazzling. Breathtaking. She just shone on stage, like she was meant to be there. She was so fluid and natural and gorgeous, and her voice was strong and healthy and confident. She did, indeed, steal the show. I giggled at her playfulness with Bernardo, and her unrepentant confidence at her own beauty and sensuality (something that a lot of teenagers have a hard time pulling off). I cried with her when she sang "A Boy Like That." I physically felt her fear when she was tormented and assaulted at the diner by the Jets. I have never been so proud and moved by anything or anyone in my life. She was transcendent. Luminous. She is a star, and every single person in that sold out theater knew it, and they made sure she knew that they recognized her talent.

I waited for her outside the stage doors, flowers in my hand, willing myself to not cry when I saw her. After all, this is a seventeen year old girl, I REALLY didn't want to be one of "those" adults and embarrass her in front of all her friends and castmates. She was one of the last people to come out, and when she saw me, she froze. I hadn't told her I was coming, she had no idea I was there, and it had been more than two months since I had seen her last. She took one look at me, cried out, "Oh my God, you came!", and then promptly threw her arms around my neck and burst into tears. This sweet girl literally laid her head down on my shoulder and just sobbed. She couldn't even speak she was crying so hard. I didn't stand a chance. I cried as hard as she did, and we would, every few minutes pull back and look at each other, and through laughter, try to talk but would end up crying all over again. I finally managed to choke out how proud I was of her, and how much I loved her, and she just cried and held on to me tighter. After about five minutes we pulled ourselves together and laughed, and I gave her the roses, and told her I would always be just a phone call or text away if she needed anything, and I pushed her over to her friends who had been waiting so patiently for her (and who had no idea who this woman was that Amy was clinging to--they were clearly confused).

I cried all the way home, and knew that I needed to write about this experience because it made something so clear to me. That experience, those precious moments where I had a TEENAGER hug me and tell me how much of a difference I had made in her life, is the reason I have chosen to work with children. I hear people say all the time, "Lawd, I couldn't work with kids. They would just drive me crazy." They're absolutely right, they do drive you crazy. When you work with kids, no matter the age, it's going to be a challenge. It's going to be tough, they're going to challenge you, and aggravate you, and push your buttons, and why shouldn't they? They are PEOPLE, and PEOPLE do all of those things on a daily basis. The main difference between working with  kids and adults is that, when you work with kids, you are impacting and helping shape a fellow human being, and those kids remember who supported and nurtured them. They take everything personally, and their emotions are like live wires, ready to go at any moment. They absorb everything they see and hear and are influenced by the smallest details, and often they can't just shrug things off like most life-weary and embattled adults can. They don't forget, for good or bad. It is an amazing thing, to realize that you have made a positive difference in a young person's life, and that they realize it and are grateful to you for taking the time to help them.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a star. I wanted to perform and be famous, and not because I was desperate for attention, but because I was terrified of the thought of being forgotten. I don't know why I was so preoccupied with the idea, but I wanted to make sure that, whatever I did, I made an impact and that there would be something left of me to be remembered by future generations. In the musical, Little Women, there's number called "Astonishing," in which Jo March proclaims, "I will blaze until I find my time and place. I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace. I WILL NOT DISAPPEAR WITHOUT A TRACE." That was me. I was determined to be remembered and do something important. Somehow, when I wasn't looking or trying, I accomplished that. I've made a difference. I choose to work with children and teenagers because I can make an impact, and have. I cannot fully put into words what it means to have had this experience and what it feels like to have made a real difference in the life of a young woman, to know that I did something that I love, and helped her find a part of herself she didn't know she had. There's a reason I got into teaching music and directing theater. There's a reason that I am now working in the children's department of the public library system. I get to see and work with children from every demographic every day, and yesterday I realized that I really have made a difference, and that I will be remembered by this wonderful young woman. I also realized that she isn't the only one, that there have been other students whose lives I have influenced in some positive way. As difficult as the last year has been, I have confidence that I'm doing something important, something that I'm good at, and that I'm exactly where I need to be. What a gift to be given, and how funny that it took a musical I hate to make me see that.