Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, died within a week of one of the ugliest chapters in modern American race relations broke out – leaving 5 Dallas police officers dead – and proving as a society, we have yet to learn from the painful lessons of our past.
I met Elie Wiesel the year following the attacks of September 11th. Emotions were painfully raw; Americans were searching for answers about the disturbing world they suddenly found themselves thrust into.
For those who are unfamiliar, Wiesel penned the book, Night, chronicling his surviving the Holocaust as a child. And for anyone with a heart, the book is one of the most painful reads you’ll ever experience. I vividly remember involuntarily tossing the book onto the coffee table as if the pages became superheated in my fingers. Moments later I also discover tears rolling down my cheeks.
Yes, Wiesel’s message is that powerful.
This week, watching news reports of five Dallas police officers being shot while at a peaceful demonstration, I can’t help but hear Wiesel’s words again. The entire chapter, from those leading up to the demonstrations to the deadly actions of a lone gunman, all run counter to what Wiesel preached to the world.
After visiting for a few moments, Wiesel stepped away and onto the stage of a local high school auditorium. Approaching a podium, that challenged him for both size and weight, he adjusted the microphone. Moments later, you realized you were in a room with a giant.
“We should never seek to tolerate,” he said. “Rather, we should seek to understand.”
I’m sure, like many others, I went home that evening without fully appreciating the gravity of his message. Some things better reveal themselves after marinating in both time and events.
Fortunately, for me, Wiesel’s words took deep roots in my heart. As time passed, and world events included war and ugly tag team partner, suffering, populated current the news, his words bloomed inside of me.
To tolerate, he said, was to put up with, to accept, to do nothing. To tolerate, was to be passive, to miss the opportunity to grow and understand the world from another’s point of view. Understanding was the secret – the truest way to see the world from around us – whether Dallas or Dunkirk. And only by doing so, you could respond instead of reacting. The former allows time for thoughtful and intelligent actions. The latter, an emotional action, does not allow for one to fully appreciate the entirety of the situation.
Today Wiesel’s words are as much a part of my being as a compass to a ship’s captain. The wisdom he shared, the seeking to understand the motivations of others, lays the groundwork to resolving differences and constructively forward.
We should never lose our motivation to understand nor passively allow injustices to stand unchecked. To do so is to simply tolerate. And we are better than that.
Just remember the giant who spoke from behind the small podium.