The title of this post is a clever quote from Mark Twain. And being a massive lover of all things old and historic, I adore it. I have gotten old enough to start watching history be made and I hear this truth echoing across the decades. It always rhymes.
A friend and I had lunch a couple of weeks ago and wandered onto the topic of just how messed up our world seems to have gotten. (I know. I’m an awesome lunch guest. You, too, can invite me to lunch and have me completely rain on your parade by bringing up how insane the world is. DM me for my availability.) We talked about various periods of time in history where the world just looked really, really bleak. Religious persecution in early Rome. Witch trials. World Wars. Holocausts and genocide. Plague. Literally Sodom and Gommorah. Pick a time period of history and you can find some pretty dark times. We wondered out loud if in 50 years the next generation would pinpoint THIS moment in history as one of those dark days and wonder how we survived it. Can you know you are in one of those deepest darkest pits of history when you are actually in it? Or is the very act of survival enough of a distraction from how bad it has gotten? Can the dark moments only be truly seen in hindsight? (Again, DM me. I’m so much fun.)
And then we speculated about what jolts humanity out of those desperately dark and hopeless times. Because it happens, without fail, in every time period. Rome burns. Cooler heads prevail. A land war in Russia during the winter proves to be a bad idea. Prisoners are released. Vaccines prevail. Life goes on. (Just so you know, there is an actual book on this subject called The Fourth Turning. I’ve only heard about it in synopsis but if you want to know a close to actual answer to this question, you can look there.) My friend and I aren’t smart enough to read that book, so we were left trying to identify patterns and recall fuzzy history from faded high school textbooks and School House Rock episodes.
We landed on this: Among many other factors, at some point humanity just has enough. And maybe an intervention or mercy from God or natural disasters or herd immunity or winter in Russia plays a part. But in general, humanity rises as one unit and refuses to tolerate anymore evil or refuses to be broken. Again this is a very simplistic theory compared to the complexity of what the truth actually is. And maybe my friend and I are little more optimistic then we believe ourselves to be and we just really want to believe that humanity reaching its limit on evil is what stops the darkness. Regardless, today, I need to believe it.
Today, as I scroll through more eye witness testimonies from children of the horrors they faced in their school classroom, I need to believe we are ready to say enough is enough. As another phone buzz alerts me to another group of innocent people slaughtered while committing the terrible crime of grocery shopping, I need to believe we are done. As yet another dictator snatches what doesn’t belong to him while commanding his armed forces to hunt down civilians, I need to believe we have remembered history well enough to know what the resolute response must be.
I need to believe it because the alternative is that we just don’t care enough about anything anymore. The alternative is the terrible story of the German woman on the train. I know I reference this story a lot but its because in days like today it calls to me like a siren begging for my compassion:
A survivor of a Nazi concentration camp recalled the train ride she took as a young child from her hometown to the camp she was doomed to. As I’m sure you know, the Nazis took to transporting these prisoners by cattle car, stuffing in as many humans as possible while still being able to shut the door. What you may not know is that sometimes these cattle cars were pulled by passenger trains. The prisoners were the last passengers loaded and unloaded, ensuring the travelers in the front cars never knew of their existence.
This survivor was a young girl of about 10 when the guards attempted to load her onto the car. But when the car was found too full for even a small 10 year old girl to squeeze into, the guards made a last minute decision to allow her to sit in the passenger portion of the train, with a guard standing nearby, of course.
This young girl, who hadn’t slept or eaten in days since she had been taken from her home, was seated next to a middle aged German woman. The woman was quite talkative and excited about her journey to visit a sister she hadn’t seen in quite a while. She prattled on and on, even offering parts of her lunch to the young girl. At one point she finally noticed the vigor with which the girl was eating and the state of her ragged clothing and asked where her parents were. The young girl replied they were in the back, in the cattle car, with the rest of the Jews on their way to a work camp.
The woman sat perfectly still for a moment, with her mouth slightly open. And then said, “Don’t tell lies. The German people would never allow such a thing to happen.”
And then she turned her back to the girl, faced towards the window, and never spoke another word the rest of the journey.
This story illustrates what happens when we don’t get fed up.
This year of writing is supposed to be an opportunity for me to look back at my life so far and glean what I feel I have learned in the first half of my life. What I have learned is that inaction against evil is not an option for me. What I have learned is I have a healthy fear of becoming that woman on the train, a woman far too timid to face reality. What I have learned is when a child sits down next to me with a sigh far too heavy for their young years and tells me what it feels like to watch their classmates be gunned down in between math and reading lessons, I am obligated to act on their behalf. Turning my head back towards the window is simply not an option.
My fellow Americans, the children are dying again. The elderly are being gunned down while reaching for the bread. The young and healthy are falling while dancing to their favorite band. The darkness is here. Are we ready to stand up together yet? Are we ready to set aside the political aisles we rest our laurels on and set down our sharpened knives desperate to seek out the flesh of our “enemies”? A little girl just sat down next to you on the train. She told you her story. Was it enough?
Can we get fed up together and do something about it now? I don’t think a snow storm in Russia will end this particular darkness. Maybe another one, but not this one. Call your senators, vote, pray, call your senator again, make a sign, march. Do all of the things. Let’s get fed up.