Tag Archives: compassion


Germany* (jûr m -n ), n. a country in north central Europe, on the North and Baltic Seas; area, 182,471 sq. mi.; pop., 65,899,000 (1946): in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, administered respectively by France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, in 1949, the United States, British, and French zones were constituted as (the Federal Republic of) West Germany and the Soviet zone was constituted as the East German Democratic Republic (East Germany): capitals, Bonn (West Germany), Berlin (East Germany): German name, Deutshland: abbreviated Ger., G.
*reminder that the dictionary I typically pick from is from 1955

What is it that defines a place? Its borders? The way it is placed in our collective memory, in our history books? How is that a place comes to conjure certain emotions? What about the way in which people use the land? What about the personalities, values and passions of the people that live there? How do these people’s way of life embed the place with meaning? The study of geography fascinates me because of all these questions. When people move thousands of miles from their native land, why do they often choose places with similar topographic features or climate? How do their bodies or souls gravitate there? How do they know where to go—to the place that feels most like where they come from, the home they left behind? And how does what humans do in a given space define it permanently?

Although my last name is Irish and my mother’s side is mostly Acadian French, a good chunk of my ancestry is German. And I remember when I found this out not wanting this to be the case. I had learned about the Holocaust and was horrified by the stories I read, the black and white photos I saw. I remembered the image that Elie Wiesel wrote of in Night that described babies being thrown up in the air and speared by German soldiers bayonets. And I wanted to not be from there, from the place that produced ethnic genocide, suffering, death, pain. I wanted to not be associated with or related to people who were able to participate in the mass slaughter, in a very methodical and personal way, of millions of people solely because of the God they worshipped and the way their features were shaped.

In knowing that my ancestors came from there, even if it was long before the Holocaust, it somehow made them and me complicit or related to these unimaginable actions, this behavior so divorced from the human capacity for compassion, understanding, kindness. So I found pride in my Irish roots, my Cajun roots, and I ignored my German ones.

And I wonder how we untether a place from its history. We can’t, I guess. And we shouldn’t. But what if a place only becomes about the painful parts of its history? I grew up in the South, in Louisiana—a place lush with cypress and magnolia trees, with humidity, with music streaming out of bars and out of the bells of brass instruments. This is also a place with long ugly celloid scars from the scourge of slavery and the racism that followed (and continues to follow) long after the Civil War was over. And yet it is my home. There are so many things about my home that I am proud of. I see that it is not one thing or the other, not evil or good, not about suffering nor about the overcoming of it. This place, as with all places, is defined by it all.

I also don’t know how to reconcile the fact that the suffering of a place and its peoples also shapes and informs the important and positive cultural identification of that place. Before Katrina, New Orleans was 65 percent African-American, and it is the spirit, music, family and cultural values of the African-American community that is the foundation of the streets we walk on back home. Without this community, New Orleans is not New Orleans. And this community is there because their ancestors were brought over to be slaves to white colonizers.

Germany is not just the Holocaust, but the scars are there. And the scars are visible not only to Germans but to me and the rest of the world. When I went to Germany on a high school trip to Europe, we went to two places. We walked around the cobblestones streets of Munich, where we visited the Hofbräuhaus and watched the Glockenspiel tell the hour in the evening. And yet all the time, I was thinking of the next place we were to visit: Dachau. It was raining and cold when we visited Dachau. We walked around and saw the empty plots, with wooden borders to show where the camps had been. We saw one of the brick ovens (a reconstructed one? A remaining one? I don’t remember now).

At some point, I distanced myself from the crowd and went with my umbrella to stand off alone taking in the scene. I remember thinking: This is where the Jews were persecuted. This is where they stood in rain and cold like this except with threadbare clothing and shaven heads. And I wanted more than anything to cry. But I couldn’t cry. The truth was that I could not feel their pain. How could I? I had never had to experience the sort of suffering they had undergone. So all I could do was stand there and try to understand.

I have had a hard time writing this post because whenever I thought of Germany, these thoughts came to my mind. And I thought, is that all there is to write about? I guess that’s not what matters because this is what, I suppose, I needed to write about. That my Grandma’s name is Rothermich. That my great grandfather’s name was Hupfer. And that it is problematic to come from a place—from multiple places—in which human beings were impossibly cruel to other human beings.

The key to understanding a place, I suppose, resides in the ability to not only read or understand but absorb the feeling of it all as much as possible. To see the broken down barns as well as the stately mansions, the dead trees and the ones that bear fruit. I guess it is about never forgetting the human-created sorrow that will never be absent from the place and yet to not allow that feeling of sadness to be the only feeling. To know a place, in my mind, is to know that it is a space in which both hurt and healing can occur. What happens in that space, all of it, should never be forgotten. And our responsibility to that place is to try to tip the scales, to be better to each other than future generations were and to repeat their kindness but not their cruelty.

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pa·ter·nal·is·tic (pe-tur´n´l-is´ti-k), adj. of or characterized by paternalism.

pa·ter·nal·ism (pe-tur´n´l-iz´m),  n. [paternal  +  -ism],  the principle of system of governing or controlling a country, group of employees, etc. in a manner suggesting a father’s relationship with children.

It should be noted (since I haven’t made note of it in awhile) that the dictionary I have been picking from is the Webster’s “New World” of 1955. It’s a lovely dictionary with more character and history than my new paperback edition. However, its age also creates some issues when presented with certain words. The definition of paternalism seemed particularly interesting to me because it seemed to reflect that world and not to carry any of the negative associations that I have come to associate with paternal, paternalistic, patronizing, and so on.

Although paternalistic is not in my 2004 Merriam-Webster, paternalism is:

n:  a system under which an authority treats those under its control paternally (as by regulating their conduct and supplying their needs)

That still doesn’t seem to implicate the nuances of the word that I have come to know. According to these definitions, my father acted paternally when he gave me chores around the house and gave my mom money for groceries. But there is an inherent value judgment, a gendering of roles that is not considered with these definitions of the word. The definitions imply that there is a certain way that a father must act. As in the first definition “in a matter suggesting a father’s relationship with children,” we are left to our own judgments based on stereotypes and socializing messages that have been given to us over the years.

I suppose this works if we give ourselves a very narrow definition of who fathers are. Fathers are providers. They are the disciplinarians. They are the heads of the households. Fathers set expectations for their children. They are loving but stoic. The problem here is that this description no longer suits many fathers. It certainly doesn’t suit mine.

My dad is one of the most sensitive people I know. I mean this as a compliment. I get my sensitivity—my compassion for others and my ability to be easily moved—from him. It was my dad who read me stories every night before bed, who I talked through my issues and problems with as a child and teenager. My dad was the one who was a softie when it came to punishments. I would’ve quicker been fearful of upsetting or angering my mother than my dad. She was stricter and she would stand her ground. With Dad, I knew I could get off easy.

Furthermore, my dad is a therapist. His job is to be a sensitive and compassionate listener so that people can work through their issues. He is part of a circle of men who gather to support one another—to appreciate their masculinity while recognizing the importance of building strong and intimate male friendships, something our culture does not often value and more often discourages outright.

A college English professor of mine, Steve Wright, said this of the word paternalistic: “It should mean being a good father, but it doesn’t. To me, it means the opposite. My job as a father is to empower my son so that he can be a strong individual, completely independent of me in terms of the choices he makes as he decides the best way to live his life and cherish his own values.” Thus in his perception, the definition of “being a good father” as defined by our culture is to impose authority on a child versus his decision to empower his child to be the authority on his own life. But isn’t that also being a good father? Doesn’t it depend what we define as good, what we define as paternal?

I tell my college composition students that all meaning is situated. That a given text or a given string of words inherently does not have meaning without considering the author of the text, the context for it and its audience. I can read the definition of the word paternalistic, that it is “characterized by paternalism.” And “paternalism”: “governing or controlling a system or country…as the relationship of a father to his child.” But I never felt governed or controlled by my dad. I felt loved. I felt cared for. I felt both encouraged and challenged by him.

I think oftentimes when we consider masculine qualities as a culture, we do so without considering the healthy range of these qualities. There is a desire for power but there is also a desire to be an authority/to be in a position of leadership. There is a difference between exerting control and being controlling. There is a healthy sense of confidence and there is a huge ego that makes you ignore others viewpoints and ideas. One can support or one can demand. I think part of our problem in our patriarchal, often paternalistic, culture is when we privilege the more drastic end of the scale. We don’t value the more moderate versions of masculine qualities.

Perhaps we need a new definition for paternalistic, based on a new understanding of fathers—of the range of who they are and qualities they possess. Fathers as sensitive and strong, as loving and demanding, as supportive and challenging. Fathers who teach their daughters how to believe in themselves so they can become the best person they can, so they can become experts at whatever they want to do. Fathers who teach their sons to be gentle on themselves, to value color and arts and to honor their own feelings. Fathers who show their sons how to be good fathers.

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