Guest Column: Surviving & Compassion ~ a Stream of Consciousness

Source/ Pexels. Cottonbro, Photographer

by Edward Reid 

Much has been written about the horrors of genocide – victims, survivors, and definitions of humanity. There have been trials that revealed the agonizing depths of complexities involved.  Viktor Frankl, that I have written about before, was a man whose whole family was murdered and was a prisoner in Auschwitz, rarely mentioned the Germans and said, “I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.”

Being wronged can be one of the greatest opportunities to show others what is possible. Frankl writes that even within the camp, there were individuals that acted with such selflessness that he writes

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

An example that I am familiar with is in Poland, in particular, the history between Poles and Ukrainians. It has not always been solid; there is a past full of horror and murder. Ukrainian nationalists were eradicating Poles throughout WWII in the Wolyn massacre. In fact, it is labeled a genocide, and up to 100,000 Poles, including women and children, were brutally murdered.

Even though it was such a long time ago a person with direct experience in such an event might understand if the Poles questioned giving the Ukrainians a haven during the present war with Russia.  Memories have a way of insinuating themselves in the present landscape. Most countries can point to a brutal conflict in their past. The issue is remembering it to learn from it.

Poland in this instance, has opened its borders and has given the Ukrainians shelter with open arms. This is just one example of overcoming a horrific event(s). They saw that others needed help, which was more important than a long term bitterness. 

The issue of compassion is global. People who were not directly engaged relive their wars and battles through ancestor’s memories, books, films, theater, and re-enactments. Assessing how people respond to tragedy is a weave of complexity. Books and articles on victim and survivor number in the thousands. It involves more than just those two labels. It involves whether our reactions are a matter of conscience, will, and behavior within the context of our situation and circumstances. And the farther we drill down the more complex things become. How do people define, interpret, and handle the horror that enters their life? How much are they influenced by what they hear, read, and see and then interpret through the prism of their environment?

Holding onto reactionary feelings will only hurt or even destroy us. There are people that we categorize as “survivors,’ and others as “victims” and they overlap…and at times manipulated through others with an agenda, depending on the person and situation. A person can become stuck in resentment. The resentment feeds on itself especially for the person who is abused or assaulted and the conditions that allowed it to happen. To drink the poison of resentment can strip our humanity. Fairness and justice begins within each is us and the examples we show our children.  

Victimization transcends war and the individual.  It’s not a playground. It’s real. How do we define and deal with it? We can witness examples of people and even nations that are victimized by others seeking power over them…and at some juncture the participants must decide when they let go of the pain though the memory may still reside within. History is always being revised. 

All people involved in conflict, especially on their homeland, know amidst the natural aggressions of humans, (Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression) a depth of character acknowledges that forgiveness and compassion are the higher good. 

The question is how does one move forward? To translate forgiveness and compassion in one’s daily life through action may be a challenge but is essential.