Wie haben sie das geschafft: sich zu behaupten, für sich zu sorgen, für sich zu kämpfen, ohne ein Schwein zu werden, dem die anderen egal sind?Bernhard Schlink, Die Enkelin
Translation: ‘How did they manage to assert themselves, to take care of themselves, to fight for themselves, without becoming a pig who doesn’t care about the others?’
Having just witnessed yet another grave abuse of power by a figure in authority who should have known better than to act in the way they did, i.e., without any apparent care for those they were hurting, Schlink’s question is a pertinent one for me.
It is when noting the traces of little tokens of the deep humanity among the inmates of Ravensbrück concentration camp that the protagonist of Schlink’s novel asks how they managed not to lose their humanity even in an extreme situation like that.
It is our ongoing challenge that – whatever the hurt, whatever the abuse – we manage to assert ourselves, take care of ourselves, fight for ourselves, without losing our own humanity in the process.
Many a contemporary man … gives up his power, originality, and independence, because of fearing exile if he does not. He renounces his power and conforms under the great threat and peril of ostracism.Rollo May, Existential Psychotherapy
Unless, of course, one doesn’t – only to find oneself duly ostracised. The wisdom of May’s statement should not be missed despite its gendered language – a product of the time.
Some of the deepest longing in you is the voice of your gift. … The only way to honour the unmerited presence of the gift in your life is to attend to the gift; this is also a most difficult path to walk. … The gift alone knows where its path leads. It calls you to courage and humility. If you hear its voice in your heart, you simply have to follow it. … People who truly follow their gift find that it can often strip their lives and yet invest them with a sense of enrichment and fulfilment that nothing else could bring.John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes
This whole passage is stimulating and deeply insightful, but I was most struck by the concept of the gift stripping our lives if we follow it. Following one’s gift might involve being an uncompromising, prophetic voice in an environment where such a voice is not welcome – which is probably true for most environments. Martin Luther King Jr comes to mind, whose gift stripped his life in that it led to fierce, violent, and in his case ultimately deadly opposition.
I suppose it can be a deep honour for one’s life to be stripped, an honour that those who respond to someone’s exercise of their gift in power-abusing, coercive, violent ways unwittingly and ironically award them.