Thursday, October 25, 2012

Visiting Europe

by Miki Kashtan


It’s never easy to visit Germany, not as an Israeli Jew, no matter how many years I’ve lived in the USA. The question is never far enough away to forget it: What did your parents do during the war? (or now it’s grandparents for some of those I meet). When I know that 90% of people supported Hitler, how can the question not be asked? At a workshop on the power of requests, it takes me the entire day before I can bring myself to tell the usual story about the power of requests based on the Oliners’ study of rescuers of Jews (for more details, see Tests of Courage, Part 2). I am in Germany, and the discomfort is bigger than my capacity, for most of the day. At night, sitting with friends over dinner, I allude to my general sense that the Germans haven’t really dealt with the Holocaust, not in a deep, significant way. I am met with vociferous disagreement, which dissolves when I explain what I mean. Have the Germans truly looked into what led so many people to be willing to participate? When I was in Dachau a number of years ago, the most intense aspect of it was how emotionally blank the entire exhibit was. I didn’t see any engagement, any sense of horror, only facts and figures. I do not have a facile belief that the Holocaust could only have happened in Germany. I do not believe there is something unique and horrible about Germany. I do believe that a certain culture of obedience, of following and admiring rules and order, is a part of what happened. Have Germans changed the way they raise their children? 

In an earlier visit, I stayed at someone’s home for a few days. She told me, on the first day, that she had moved back in with her parents, and described in moving detail how she now enjoys a relationship without limits, where they talk with each other about everything. Two days later, when the Question was finally asked, I learned that her parents apparently sided with the Nazis, and suddenly she was in intense discomfort, and told me how they have never once talked in full about the topic. How come this discomfort, this anguish she expressed and about which she cried, didn’t get included when she talked about their relationship two days earlier? She expressed gratitude to me for opening the door for her to look at the issues.
We agreed to stay in touch, and she didn’t. Months later she responded to an email and admitted it was tough for her to stay in touch. How could Germans completely heal from what happened to them without allowing such anguish to surface, without talking with all of us, the Jews and the others they harmed, without looking at their cultural habits, without looking directly and squarely at what hurts?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Punishment and Reward

by Miki Kashtan

I have been carrying a vivid memory with me for over 50 years. In it, my father is chasing me around the little circle of dining area, kitchen, corridor, and living room that existed in our apartment. In my memory, this has happened already, to me and to my older sister. I don’t know, in actuality, if it was a one-time event or recurring. As I am running away from him, I suddenly realize there is just no way I can manage to escape. He is bigger, and faster, and I am small, not as strong. Sooner or later he will catch up with me. I stop, crushed by the futility of the effort, and turn around to accept the inevitable slap in my face I know is coming. I stand in my small body facing him as he is coming my way. I close my eyes as tightly as I can, contracting the muscles around them, raise my face in his direction, and wait. The burning sensation of that slap is still imprinted on my cheek. More significant by far is the impossibility, to this day, of having a visceral understanding of how a grown man could look at his five year old daughter, see her stand the way I remember me standing, and still deliver the slap. What could possibly make it appear to be the right thing to do?

I have no awareness of what the “transgression” was that led to this event. I do know that making me submit to his will was a major project for my father. As it is for so many parents in relation to so many children.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Unique Privilege of Meaningful Work

by Miki Kashtan
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -- Mary Oliver

Appalachian portrait by Stacy Lee Adams
After I wrote my previous post about privilege, I was more attuned to the presence of privilege in my life and around me. It is in the nature of privilege to remain invisible to those who have it, and I wanted to make use of my heightened awareness to expose and explore other forms of privilege. This brought me back to a topic I alluded to in a very early post about despair and never fully explored: the privilege of having work that emerges from passion, from a calling, from a sense of meaning. This is a form of privilege that cuts through social class, though also tends to align with class privilege.

Dreaming and Social Class

I remember years ago being paired up in a support group with a person who was raised in dire poverty in Appalachia. Our task was precisely to connect with dreams that we’ve had for our life, dreams we still wanted to accomplish. When it was my turn, I rattled off my dreams one after the other, and focused my attention on the wistfulness I felt about not seeing a way to fulfill them. When it was the other person’s turn, I encountered for the first time the possibility that anyone would have any challenge to even dream. Until that day, I was entirely unaware of the social privilege of being able to dream. I now know that far fewer people without access to external resources find their way to dreaming, let alone going for the dream. 

I have since learned, when I was in graduate school in particular, how much the schooling that people get in different social classes prepares them for their different presumed future lives. A fellow student was doing an observation study in two preschools, one serving an affluent community, and one serving a low income community. I was struck by the difference in what skills the kids were being taught. The low income preschool emphasized obedience and following rules. The higher income preschool taught the children to think for themselves how to work out situations. In a context of rule following and strict obedience, cultivating dreams is a luxury few can reach. When you add to that the enormous social obstacles that low income people have in terms of pursuing dreams, it’s no wonder that so few manage. How would anyone emerge into meaningful living when they have fewer inner resources to handle the bigger external obstacles?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Talking about Money and Privilege

by Miki Kashtan

Some time ago I was sitting with a group of Nonviolent Communication enthusiasts on a cold winter night, watching the fireplace crackle, eating, laughing, and talking. The group invited me to support their development as a leadership group of their community. A few years before they had gotten together to make NVC known and visible in their town. When I was visiting, they were celebrating their success, as more and more people in their town came to know about NVC through their efforts and have come to trainings they organize. Now they wanted to take their work to a new level, to break free of the social homogeneity of their group and its members, to reach into communities and populations they had not yet connected with. That was what they wanted my support for.

I regularly sit with groups like this in different places in the world. I also sometimes get emails and questions from people around the world. The enthusiasm, the vision, and the willingness to put energy and resources into work towards such dreams touch me deeply. This particular conversation was so extraordinary for me, that I feel moved to bring its content to others, changing circumstances and location so as to keep the anonymity of people and allowing them to do what I experienced as sacred work in peace.

I want this anonymity because we engaged with one of the biggest taboos in the country: money. It started out entirely innocuously, when I described to them my pet project (which I am inching my way to making more publicly known beyond just doing it myself) of a maximum wage campaign. The idea of it is simple: each person that wants to join the campaign decides - for themselves, without any hint of suggestions about it - what is the amount truly needed for them to have in order to sustain themselves and their families at a level that allows them to focus where they want to focus, and declare that to be their maximum wage. Any time they end up generating more income than their maximum, they pledge to give that amount away, to whatever cause they choose.