When I used to get physical newspapers like The Calgary Herald and The National Post in the morning, I used to read the obituaries quite attentively and with interest.
There was something grounding about reading those as a busy student or young professional. It helped me to contemplate what is most essential in life.
Years later, I started to ask myself: If I wrote obituaries of the living, would I be kinder to them?
I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.
In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.
I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.
These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.
What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.
The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.
Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.
The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.
Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?
The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.
Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz
Today I began reading The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton, which a friend just gave to me.
Early on in it, two men are brought before a police magistrate named Cumberland Vane. One of the men is a atheist named Mr. Turnbull who owns a secular bookshop and the other is a Catholic named Evan MacIan, who broke the window of Mr. Turnbull’s shop.
When Mr. Vane asks MacIan why he broke the window, he replied, “Because [Mr. Turnbull] blasphemed Our Lady.”
The magistrate then considers MacIan insane and asks, “What conceivable right have you to break other people’s windows because their opinions do not agree with yours? This man only gave expression to his sincere belief.”
In this provocative and imaginative paragraph, MacIan responds:
If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out. If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place. Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife. I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends. To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity. If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything? I would fight for my friend, but if I lost my friend, I should still be there. I would fight for my country, but if I lost my country, I should still exist. But if what that devil dreams were true, I should not be—I should burst like a bubble and be gone. I could not live in that imbecile universe. Shall I not fight for my own existence?”
What makes the fight worthwhile, in spite of everything?
And what it is that is worthy of the fight ultimately?
How, at first disappointing, and then irrelevant, would the greatest earthly victories and worldly successes be if good did not ultimately triumph over evil and life and love did not ultimately conquer death?
Photo: Soldiers receiving Communion
There is a miscellaneous text by Janusz Korczak (the Polish Jew who perished in Treblinka along with 200 children and staff of the orphanage he directed) that is titled, “How I Will Live after the War.”
In it, he notices how “about fifteen of them are keeping journals.” Most of the journals document life day-to-day and, occasionally, there are reminiscences about the past. However, “only once did someone write about what he was going to do after the war.”