Yesterday, a woman who I have known for over a half century posted a meme that shocked and saddened me. It showed two images. One was a picture of an elderly religious Jew being processed into a concentration camp and the other was an open mass grave with images of dead emaciated inmates lying within it. The message of the meme was that the current restrictions on people’s movements due to Covid 19 were the equivalent to that of Nazi’s. In my eyes, it was clearly a supporting meme to Donald Trump’s “liberate” Tweets.
I found it shocking that anyone would use death camp images when describing social distancing, self-isolating and other measures designed by local and state governments to keep the disease from spreading. I could not imagine anyone would willfully want to make others sick and perhaps even cause their death. But then again, I had seen an interview earlier in the day with protestors to virus restrictions whose main issues seemed to be personal comfort. (One person needed to go to the hairdresser and another wanted to fertilize his lawn.)
Clearly, there were people who thought self-sacrifice for the greater good was not part of the American ethos. I also suspect that members of the greatest generation would bitch slap these takers and slackers.
Needless to say, the meme upset me to my core. Not only was this someone who had violated a relationship of over a half century by posting such an image, but she had revealed to me a dark underbelly to her soul as well and to many other fellow citizens. Where they feel their needs are far more important than the national good at a time of crisis. My first inclination was to respond to her meme with vitriol and anger. To eviscerate her verbally, leaving nothing behind except a blood colored skid mark. However, for the last few days I have been writing about kindness and forgiveness and so instead of going back to her guns a blazing I decided to take a beat and think about how I could handle this in a way that was respectful and provide her with a path towards regaining my trust in them.
One of the things I knew about this person was that she was not well versed in Science. For example, I knew her to be an anti vaxer based on non-clinical arbitrary data and was relatively unconcerned about the problems not vaccinating part of the population would create for those who were at risk. I also knew that in the past when I have used statistics to back up arguments, she dismissed them as bad data because they did not match her world view. As a consequence, I thought a more emotional argument would likely be the best approach.
What I thought to write her was about the outbreak in New Rochelle, New York. There, one individual infected 100’s of others by going to a religious service. I wanted to describe what each one of those individuals must have felt. The fever, shakes, body racking coughs, the gasping for breath and fear…and for some dying alone in a hospital bed without any comfort. How many hundreds of medical workers would have exposed themselves to the virus just to save those exposed by that single individual. I would have asked her to ponder what it would be like to be that one person who caused all of this illness and pain, knowing if that they had just self-isolated none of this would have happened. Were you this person who caused all this suffering how could you live with yourself afterwards? How would you find forgiveness? Before you seek gods forgiveness you must seek that of those you have injured and how would you do that?
One of my father’s favorite sayings was “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” (He loved puns too) This was not a degrading statement towards women or sexuality. Instead it was a reminder that some people will never be able to think. Knowing the poster of the meme, I knew that asking her to think would be a stretch. As a consequence, I decided against an approach that would require her to imagine herself in another’s shoes. It would be, sadly, beyond her.
Perhaps I should ask her to consider the offensiveness of the imagery of the meme and forget the broad political implications. Suggest to her, that children of Holocaust survivors and many others, would find the images offensive. That instead of helping make her point it would drive people away.
This was the approach I decided on and I posted on her meme how offended I was as a jew, a son of a holocaust survivor and as a person I was offended by the imagery of the meme let alone the message. She responded by saying she had had a bad week, and this was her way of protesting the increasingly draconian measures taken by the government in California to halt the spread of the virus. She did not apologize for using the images or the offense they may cause me and others. She had a bad week so it was okay.
Needless to say her response did not fill my heart with kindness nor with forgiveness as she had asked for none.
It occurred to me that perhaps I could make her better understand the offensive and perniciousness of her meme by re-writing the rabbi’s tale of the gossiper for the age of social media. It would have gone something like this:
A woman posted a meme on Facebook that used offensive images of the holocaust to make her emotional post. Within a few days 1000’s of people had seen the image and while some agreed with her most thought the images distasteful and hateful. She realized that instead of making her point she had just hurt people. She was deeply sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage.
After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “Go home, get one of your feather pillows, and bring it back to me.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response, the woman followed his advice and went home to get a feather pillow and brought it to the rabbi.
“Now,” said the rabbi, “go down to the beach and open the pillow and pull out all the feathers.” Confused, the woman did what she was told to do and then returned to the rabbi’s study.
After a few minutes, the rabbi said, “Now, I want you to go back to the beach to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.”
“That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The beach was very blustery, and the wind has scattered them in all directions. I can’t possibly find them all.”
“Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you post a meme or tell a story about someone else. Once you do it, it fly’s everywhere just like these feathers flew in the wind. Once posted, you can never take them back.
In other words, what she had done may, in the long run, be forgiven but could never be undone.
But after thinking about this for while I rejected this approach as well. She had not asked me to pardon her for using images that were offensive to her so my story would have little impact.
When I was considering the nature of forgiveness the other day, I was struck by some that Rabbi Telushkin had said. That while we are not obligated to forgive those who have harmed us who do not seek forgiveness it is in our best interest that we do so as it frees us from whatever hold they may have on us. Or in Lennon and McCartney’s words of wisdom “Let it be.”
So that is what I did with this person who had posted the meme. I wrote to her via IM. I did not want to embarrass her or for that matter draw fire from those who saw nothing wrong and everything right about her meme. My intent was to be honest and direct without being unkind. I wrote:
I know you to be a woman who attempts to be kind and do the right thing. I also know that we disagree politically. You seem to feel that President holds no blame in this Covid 19 Pandemic and I believe that the reason you are self-isolating is in large part his fault. I believe that Dr. Fauci has given good advice and you believe something else. You believe that Gavin Newsome has evil intent and from what I can read I believe he is doing the best he can especially considering the lack of care provided by the federal government. All that being said, I would not comment on the meme if was just political. I would have just scrolled on. However, it equated the genocide of Jews during WW2 with what is going on in California right now and thus made a mockery of the death of dozens of my relatives and all those who perished in the camps. That is highly offensive when you should know what is happening in California and elsewhere is designed to keep more people alive not dead. What is more unforgivable to me personally is that you have not taken the post down knowing how offensive it is. That is both unkind and sad. I wish you well in your struggles in California but for now I am going to de friend you as I don’t want to see more memes like the one you posted.
Writing the IM. Writing this. Unfriending this friend. All of it has helped me “let it be.”
And now we move on.