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30 December, 2011

Mike Lowe (Photo: Blair Cummock)
Mike Lowe (Photo: Blair Cummock)
What do we choose to remember as 2011 draws to a close?

One of my favourite authors, the historian and spiritual writer Donald Nicholl, was invited in 1984 to the commemoration of a war-time massacre 40 years before. In Marzabotto, a community to the south of Bologna, Italy, over 770 villagers including women, children and five Catholics priests had been killed. Nicholl recalls that whenever one of the invited guests started to speak about the ‘massacre by the Germans’ one of the locals would politely correct them, saying that it was the Nazis, not the Germans, who were responsible. The reason they were so clear on this distinction, it turned out, was because on the day of the massacre, one young German soldier had refused to take part, and was executed as a result. ‘That young soldier, in his stark loneliness, had saved the good name of his nation,’ Nicholl writes.

‘It is the shame of our day,’ he continues, ‘that so few of us are ever told about the thousands of witnesses, of which the young German soldier was but one. But how can the younger generation learn when our very institutions of learning give such little attention to those events.’

Those institutions – the universities and the mainstream media – would, no doubt, argue that those thousands of brave souls who resisted are insignificant, because they failed to halt the evil, the massacres and the genocide.

But this misses a fundamental spiritual and psychological truth – that we define ourselves and our view of the world by what we choose to remember. In choosing to also remember the courageous German soldier who said ‘no’, the citizens of Marzobotto have a different world-view to the one they might have if they chose not to remember him.

We are creatures of story. Scientific observations of children younger than two years old, show that story structure is hard-wired into our brains at an even deeper level than language. We start constructing stories for ourselves even before we can talk. The stories we tell ourselves give rise to our beliefs. And our beliefs give rise to emotions and behaviours.

The power of story on the behaviour of quite large numbers of people can be seen in the ‘broken windows’ policing tactics which helped dramatically reduce violent crime in New York City. The theory behind the policy is that urban streets and public transport marred by broken windows and graffiti create a story of lawlessness which in turn gives rise to more lawless behaviour. By having zero tolerance for such vandalism – to the extent of not allowing a graffiti-sprayed train to run until it was cleaned – a different story was created resulting in more law-abiding behaviour.

More recently when my own city of Melbourne was undergoing a surge of violence by young teenagers armed with knives, it was argued that the single most effective way to tackle this crime-wave was to ask the media not to be so sensationalist in its reporting. The more these crimes were raised in the public consciousness, the more they were ‘normalized’ – seen as part of how we humans behave. And the more they were normalized, the more teenagers felt they had no choice but to carry knives when they went out.

In his essay Spirit: a force for survival, Donald Nicholl argues for the importance of remembering the many courageous individuals who stood up to Hitler, Stalin and other tyrants. By doing so, he says, we are better equipped to make our own courageous stand when we, too, are put to the test. And although most of us don’t have to face a bullet or the death camps of the Gulag archipelago – our tests are real enough. The Global Financial Crisis might have been averted if enough people in the financial sector had stood up for what they knew was right. How many wars, how much suffering might be avoided if enough people stood up courageously against corruption? Each of us knows, in our own hearts, when such an act of courage is demanded of us – whether big or small.

How we behave in such tests will be influenced to a large extent by the stories we have told ourselves about who we are and how the world works. The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky understood this at a profound level and thus the final words of his great novel The Brothers Karamazov are a hymn to memory:

‘… there is nothing higher, stronger, more wholesome and more useful in life than some good memory, especially when it goes back to the days of your childhood, to the days of your life at home. You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful sacred memory preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.’

So as 2011 draws to a close, I choose to remember that which reflects the best of the human spirit. The Muslims protecting Christians in Egypt, and vice versa; the non-violent protestors across the middle-east, the western world and, more recently, Russia; the heroism, generosity and solidarity shown in the face of so many natural disasters.

What will you choose to remember?

Mike Lowe is editor of the global website of Initiatives of Change. His varied career has included teaching English in Poland, running training programmes for young leaders in Eastern Europe (www.f-4-f.org), and developing a 'Discover the Other' programme of workshops. He lives with his family in Melbourne Australia.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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