hope and dealing with the past

A Thought for the Day that I gave on BBC Radio Ulster this morning

We talk a lot these days about dealing with the past; which in itself is a pretty deep concept. I’m convinced it’s far better to try to address the profound sorrow of our recent history than to bury it along with our dead. And yet, talking and thinking about the past can leave us trapped in it – we may find ourselves spiraling into a cycle of revenge in which our conversations are colonized by blaming each other for the pain with which we allowed ourselves to be defined. It brings to mind the image of a person tied to a waterwheel trying to stay dry, and managing to keep out of the water for a few moments at a time. But the wheel just keeps on turning, and the person never lets go.

Where does hope come from in a world where we remain fixed on sorrow? It’s easy to be superficial about hope. It’s easy to talk about the well-known figures of historic peace and justice movements who are held up as examples that we should follow. But, with all due respect to the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of this world – because God knows we owe them respect – sometimes I think they are not the most helpful icons of how ordinary people might live peaceably – and hopefully – in a difficult world. To start with, they were public figures, leading public lives. Most of us, naturally, are not scrutinized as they were. We have to get on with the business of finding meaning amidst ordinary work, family pressures, bad weather and mortgages.

So let me offer this story instead. A friend of mine once asked a Holocaust survivor what he feels when he hears a German accent. The man, who had nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp said, ‘It took days for the train to take me to the camp. In the early hours of each morning, the train stopped for a break. And every morning, German villagers came out of the woods, and put food through the slats of the train to feed us. So when I hear a German accent, before I allow myself to think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to kill me; I think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to feed me.’

The story should speak for itself; but if any interpretation is needed, to me this story speaks of how hope does not to have to rely on the future actions of our enemies, whoever we consider them to be, but on the fact that they had more in common with us to begin with than we may ever have realized.