Thank you, Steven Spielberg
In the mid-90s, I had the privilege of working for Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now: USC Shoah Foundation), Steven Spielberg’s not-for-profit organization dedicated to compiling a digital library of firsthand accounts of the Holocaust. It was the most gratifying job I had after law school and the source of many friendships that I still cherish today.
I worked in the office of the Executive Director. My job was to reply to letters written by survivors, schoolchildren and others, and to write original letters to prominent leaders around the world, including such luminaries as the Pope and such dignitaries as the King of Bulgaria, to inform them of our work. I wrote on behalf of not only the executive director and president but also Mr. Spielberg, who conceived the foundation after making Schindler’s List, to document and preserve the stories of survivors and the righteous people who fought to protect them.
Mr. Spielberg’s purpose was twofold: to honor these brave individuals who had experienced the most heinous atrocities people could commit against each other, and to create a living history of eyewitness testimonies, the vastness of which would (again) definitively refute those ignorant or hateful enough to deny that the Holocaust occurred. He also hoped that such a project would inspire others to create similar living histories of other events that have shaped our world, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War to the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, and more. His vision was that hearing the stories of what happens when bigotry and hate go unchecked would help us relate to each other better.
I remember debating with the other writers in the office which words we should use to characterize the desired relationship between people. Should the goal to be to tolerate one another? Understand each other? Accept each other? Respect each other? This conversation feels even more relevant today than it did 20 years ago.
Many people decry tolerance of each other — merely putting up with someone — as too low a bar. It doesn’t really take much effort. We put up with things all the time that we don’t like or aren’t comfortable with: minor pain, the smell of whatever was just reheated in the office microwave, reality television, politicians.
While I agree that just tolerating someone is ultimately insufficient for bettering relations between people, I feel that it is an important first step. It seems like we used to do this more readily, but nowadays even tolerance seems to be a stretch for many people. When we meet someone with whom we disagree or for whom we have a visceral disdain (for whatever reason), learning to tolerate them — to give them the space simply to be — is a step ahead of decrying or denying their very existence and is necessary to begin to heal a weak or wounded relationship and overcome negative predilections.
Understanding may be key to tolerance or may emerge from it, depending on the depth of understanding. While tolerance may be more instinctual, understanding is more rational. True understanding evolves from listening to someone else and making sure we comprehend not only what their perspective is, but also why they hold that view. Understanding involves accepting the logic of their thinking, even if we don’t agree with their underlying beliefs.
Highly emotionally charged issues — e.g., abortion/abortion rights, restrictions on gun ownership, public funding for private education — often takes people to the point where we can’t fathom that another perspective could even exist. But we need to allow our higher-level thinking to overcome only gut feelings so that we can acknowledge where someone else is coming from and why they feel the way they do. Understanding, along with tolerance, is integral to people truly getting along with each other.
When it comes to action and true change, acceptance of others is what’s needed. Acceptance does not mean that we must adopt the point of view of the other person, but it does require that we expand our worldview to include the fact that other people may not share the same beliefs we have. Acceptance takes even more effort than tolerance or understanding. It can be discomfiting to open ourselves up and be okay with a person with whom we strongly disagree.
When we open ourselves to others, we become vulnerable, ready to be disappointed, even hurt, by another, emotionally and maybe even physically. The opposite of acceptance is rejection, and no one wants to feel rejected. But we must realize that the other person also faces similar negative prospects — they, too, may feel vulnerable if they accept the existence of beliefs they do not share.
If we step back, is acceptance really that big of deal? Would it kill us to allow into our heads and hearts an idea or a person that doesn’t completely jibe with how we see the world? The world, the country, even our towns are big enough to accommodate multiple points of view, aren’t they?
I’m not advocating unbridled or blind acceptance of everything — it’s vital that we keep thinking for ourselves and striving for justice. What I urge is that we not get our tighty-whities, boxers, panties, thongs or other undergarments that we may or may not be wearing knotted up every time someone says something we don’t agree with. Can we figure out a way to ride with it?
This is admittedly a hard lesson for me to internalize in the current political climate, where integrity seems to be a quaint ideal and giving some people the benefit of the doubt will undoubtedly be unrequited. When I struggle in this effort, however, I remind myself that I can accept the other person and the fervency with which they have their ideas without having to accept the ideas themselves. I also remind myself that acceptance is the foundation of improvisation, where creating something with someone else requires building upon the reality that each person sets out for the other.
Respect is the outward manifestation of acceptance and goes even further. It shows the other person that we are okay with them, at least enough to let them know that we not only acknowledge but honor their right to their space, however they want to fill it. Respect is social currency, a clearing of an interpersonal hurdle that would otherwise be a barrier to peaceful co-existence.
I admire people like W. Kamau Bell, who is masterful at giving respect to people in groups that are not his own, as he exemplifies on his CNN show, United Shades of America: residents of Appalachia, Standing Rock or Puerto Rico, gun owners, Muslims, Chicago gang members, immigrants and more. He seeks and finds the humanity in everyone. By interacting with — and being respectful of — people with vastly different life experiences, even those who may not initially accept or respect him, such as members of the KKK (Kamau is African-American), he demonstrates how we can all can find ways to relate to each other, no matter how different we are.
Twenty years after the office discussion on which word was right to express the interpersonal relationships for which we strive, I realize that the best answer, idealistic as it seems, may simply be love. The Beatles reminded us 50 years ago that it’s all we need, and they boiled it down to a simple equation: the love you take = the love you make. So make a lot of love! And that means all kinds of love…
All kinds of love were in abundant supply Sunday, 50 years after the original Summer of Love, at the 47th annual San Francisco Pride Parade, where my family and I (all straight and cisgender) marched for the first time. We marched (with our synagogue) because we have family members and friends who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and because we support the rights of everyone to be treated equally.
We felt connected to everyone else who marched or watched, regardless of their religion, sexuality, race or other grouping, whether they were there because LGBT rights are of personal importance to them, or because they recognize such rights as human rights or civil rights, or because their business participated in the parade. We were awed by the spirit of love — and tolerance, understanding, acceptance and respect — that, along with the secondhand marijuana smoke, permeated the parade.
The insightful Krista Tippett, of On Being and Becoming Wise fame (and so much more), whom I greatly admire for her generous listening and ability to connect with everyone, says that wisdom involves the Greek concept of love called agape, “love as embodied compassion, expressions of kindness that might be given to a neighbor or stranger.” (I love that word in part because its heteronym refers the position of my mouth when I see such love demonstrated.)
Embodied compassion is caring about the well-being of someone else’s family, beyond our immediate family, friends, team or worship community, the way we care about our own. It’s feeling vicarious joy when we witness the pure bliss of a child spinning around, dancing in a puddle or swinging at the playground. It’s feeling sadness when we witness someone suffering, recognizing that when someone else is in pain, the world in which we live — my world, your world — is diminished.
We must relate to each other with an open heart and open mind. This expansive version of love is rooted in feeling empathy for others not because they could be useful to us in some way, but simply because they are fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters. It is how we need to relate to each other and, ultimately, the only way we can ensure our collective survival.