OSKAR IS A GENEROUS FRIEND who returns to Sweden where his father’s family still lives. He only gets to go every other year. On his last trip, he discovered that there’s a law that allows anyone to tent in your yard or on your land for 24 hours, till they can find their way. When asked, his grandfather said, “I didn’t know it was a law, but we’ve always done this. Because you never know when you will lose your way.” What a beautiful lantern to leave out for strangers. What a simple way to teach each other how to care. I look at Oskar’s kind eyes as he tells me this and realize that his open heart has a heritage. While the mind makes borders, the heart lives below them.
Between 1934 and 1939, Roman Vishniac took 16,000 photographs of Eastern European Jewish life, trying to preserve a culture he feared would be exterminated. Once aware of his efforts, the Nazis began to hunt Vishniac. They never caught him, but they did destroy over 14,000 of his prints. One of the prints to survive was of 11-year-old Nettie Stub, the photo taken in 1938 in Zbaszyn, a Polish detention camp. Like pollen on the wind, her picture was somehow circulated along with several of Vishniac’s Zbaszyn photographs. Later that year, Nettie was rescued and brought to safety in Sweden by the Red Cross, along with several other children. In 1983, Nettie Stub, then living in the Bronx as Nettie Katz, couldn’t believe it when she saw this picture of herself as a frightened little girl in Vishniac’s seminal publication, A Vanished World. She found the photographer to thank him, for she was certain that the Red Cross chose to save her because of his photograph.
Pam went to Lowe’s to buy a sprinkler. The person waiting on her was an African American man. He asked her how she was doing and, of all things, Pam decided to answer him honestly. She told him that she was saddened by what was happening in the world, by all the young black men being shot by police. After a while, she said that she was embarrassed by the pain her whiteness has created. Stunned, the salesman shared that he was married to a white woman and that they had a beautiful five-year-old son. He just kept saying quietly, “That’s what I’m most worried about.” Pam shared that she had a son, and that she felt such a sorrow, knowing how different their sons’ experiences would be. The two gentle souls stood in the aisle in this huge home improvement store speaking about life the only way they could, through the eyes of their children. After a time, they shook hands and introduced themselves. They repeated their names to each other. As Pam walked away, she turned around and wanted to say something else, though she couldn’t find what it was. Instead, they just smiled at each other and went back into their lives.
My wife Susan was teaching pottery to four- and six-year-olds. One day, a little boy, Billy, didn’t feel well. He stopped what he was doing and simply stood in the middle of the room without making a sound. Very quickly, the other little ones sensed that something was wrong. In a few minutes, the entire group encircled Billy. They were all up close showing their concern, as if being close would hold him up. After Susan tended to him, she noticed that no one was moving. So she said, “Everyone is concerned about you, Billy. Can you let them know if you’re alright?” Billy nodded, took a deep breath, and said, “I’m alright.” Only then did the others go back to their piles of clay.
Three things stand out from this little story. First, the fact that Billy didn’t hesitate to be immediate and visible with his suffering. Then, the second effort could show itself: Everyone held Billy up by encircling him with their concern. Finally, the acknowledgment that the group’s concern wasn’t wasted. So gentle, direct, and simple. At what point in growing up do we lose these qualities? At what degree of suffering do we refind them?
When opened enough, it’s hard to tell what you carry and what I put down. When opened enough, it’s hard to tell where the burden begins to lift and whose it really is. But either way, feeling each other’s journey brings us to the edge of life as we know it. There, we’re asked to take each breath as if it’s our first and last, and to love whatever we find, as if the stranger before us is our beloved. Daring to love this deeply, we begin to give our all, as if we were born to put the world back together without any reward, like the anonymous cell that mends a broken bone.
This excerpt is from Mark’s recent book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, published by St. Martin’s Essentials.