I have been reading a stunning book by Ariel Burger about Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Elie Wiesel in his role as professor. There is so much in this book, titled Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, that resonates with the fourth-level of consciousness according to the Andean tradition. It is especially applicable right now in US history because the current administration—all branches of our government: executive, congressional, and judicial—display so many qualities that are not third level, never mind fourth level. Wiesel warns us about and urges that we not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to what is happening around us, in the US and around the world. With the rise of extremist politics, especially the “alt right” and “white nationalism,” and with the growing demonization of anything that is “other,” Wiesel’s warning are more pertinent than ever.
Although the book is heavily influenced by Wiesel’s and Burger’s Judaism, the themes are universal across cultures, religions, and politics. The theme that weaves through all of Wiesel’s wisdom is “to invoke the past as a shield for the future.” It is the stance grounded in what he calls “witnessing.” Witnessing starts with memory—of not forgetting, of learning from events that have passed about what may be or what may come.
He taught that “If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.” How does memory “save” us, especially when history is revisionist and when, especially for young people, the past is only remotely known, is not very interesting, or seems too overwhelming to deal with. How do we remember and stand “witness” to colonial atrocities to the Inka, the indigenous North Americans, and so many other peoples? To the unspeakable genocides of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Cambodia, among others? How can we bear to make real the suffering in Yemen and so many other countries that is occurring as I write and as you read this? How do we respond when we see children torn from their parents’ arms at the southern border of the United States and processed into a bureaucratic system that has few or no mechanisms for ever returning them? As Wiesel’s student Ariel Burger asks, how can we “become custodians of memories that are not our own?” One of Wiesel’s many answers is as follows: “Our connection to the past is weak; it may be distant, at a remove. All we can do is tell the story, and we must. But in order to tell the story, we first must hear the story.”
In order to hear, we must be curious, we must inquire, we must educate ourselves, we must care, and we must be courageous.
This kind of engagement, starting with memory and extending to examining our own place in the world and our individual and collective engagement with our times, got me thinking about two foundational tenets of the Andean mystical path—to take personal responsibility for ourselves and to foster greater well-being in the world. We are not mystics that turn our face away from the world to other realms, mystical or otherwise. We immerse ourselves in the world, improving ourselves and contributing to the Runakay Mosoq, the rise of the New Humanity. To fashion an improved “us,” we have to know not only our current state, but our past as well. We have to use qaway, the mystical perception to see reality as it really is.
Many Native and indigenous wisdom traditions advise that you must know where you have come from to know where you are going. How many of us have been paying attention to where we have come from? How many of us find the current tumultuous present too divisive, painful, or tiring to pay close “witnessing” attention to what is going on all around us? How, as paqos, do we take personal responsibility not only for the state of our own energy bodies, but for the state of the collective energy?
With those questions as our launching pad, I will let Wiesel speak for himself. I trust that you will see, as I did, that this philosophy is the stance of a fourth-level consciouness.
“I don’t like the word tolerate,” Wiesel says. “Who am I to tolerate you? I prefer the word respect. I must respect you even if I do not agree with you. In fact, my disagreement may be an expression of my respect for you. If I truly respect you, don’t I owe you my honesty?”
But what about respecting those whom we deem evil or suspect are capable of evil? There may be no evil or negative energy in the kawsay pacha, but there certainly can be human beings with evil intent. Wiesel says, “For my own sake, I must still acknowledge their humanity. To act as if a perpetrator of evil is not human is too excuse him too easily. Animals do not commit mass murder. Not only that, animals do not make promises. We must remember to believe the enemy’s promises, for whatever he says, he will eventually do. If you think of him as simply an animal, it will be too easy to dismiss his words. The killer is as human as we are, but he has chosen to betray his humanity. Therefore, I must oppose him, stop him where I can, protest where I cannot.” He goes on to add, “. . .the most inhuman person is still human and will be judged accordingly. The ultimate other is a human being who has renounced his humanity, and we must bring him to justice. But this is the ultimate, the extreme. In our lives, . . . we encounter simply the other, someone with vastly different beliefs. And we must struggle to understand him, to learn from him. The distance between us is necessary, not something to turn away from.”
When we encounter the other—those different from us or with what we deem offensive beliefs or behaviors, Wiesel says, “The choice is to listen, or not. I hope that you listen, really listen, not to find the other’s weakness but to find his strength. To disagree, to engage with controversy, does not mean to refuse to listen. On the other hand, to agree with someone does not mean to merge with the other. We are different; we have our own histories, our own destinies.”
There is a concept in mysticism and other spiritual traditions of spiritual madness. It is often defined as a breakdown that leads to a breakthrough to spiritual rebirth. Wiesel tells us that this kind of madness may be the appropriate response to facing evil, suffering, and injustice. He says, “. . . if you look away from suffering, you become complicit, a bystander. Silence never helps the victim, only the victimizers. If you do look, you risk madness. Faced with a choice, madness is the better option. It is a better option because at least you will not be on the side of the killers.” He elaborates, “We study madness in order to learn how to resist. Madness holds the key to protest, to rebellion. Without it, if we are too ‘sane’ by the standards of our surroundings, we can be carried along with the world’s madness.”
What is the protester’s madness that counters the world’s madness? As I indicated above, it is a type of “mystical madness.” According to Wiesel, there are many types of madness. “There is clinical madness, which is destructive and which isolates and separates people. In its collective form, there is political madness, when nations give in to hate and lose their way. And then there is the opposite: mystical madness, which is an obsession with humanity, with redemption, with the union of people, with the messianic element in human life. One must be mad to believe that we can make the world better, that we can save humanity, or even a single life. It is unreasonable, irrational. But I am for that madness.”
Wiesel’s cites a story about why “madness” matters. The central character preaches to his fellow citizens about the dangers of what is happening around them and the evil of their own ways, but no one listens. When someone asks him why he persists, he says, “ I know. No one will listen, but I cannot stop. You see, first I thought I had to preach and protest in order to change them. But now, although I continue to speak, it is not to change the world. It is so that they do not change me.”
As paqos, we know that all of our work starts with ourselves, including the work of improving the world. As the Eastern sages say, you are not in the world, the world is in you.
Responding to his students’ questions about personal responsibility and related topics, Wiesel addresses issues that to me are the past revisited upon the present in terms of the current state of the US political system. We are witnesses to the actions of an executive branch that are unlike anything we have experienced in the past. We are witnesses to the decay, and perhaps even incremental dissolution, of our constitutional republic with its precious checks and balances. But other countries have gone through what we are now experiencing. We would do well to heed Wiesel’s words. Here he is speaking about Nazi Germany, answering questions about evil and the common person’s betrayal of his or her values, about those who blindly support those in power and those who watch their leaders go against their values but do nothing. He says, “Those who intend evil do not want others to ask these questions, and the bystanders who watch the evil happen avoid such investigation. This is the front line of the battle against fanaticism. The fanatic believes he has all the answers, and he has no questions. I have only questions, so I am their enemy. Questions save us from the certainties that lead to fanaticism. To be human is to ask questions, to ask why, to inquire, to interrogate each situation in a search for the truth, the truth of how we must act. We must face such questions rather than turn away from them; we must unmask and confront evil rather than reduce it to something comfortable. It is not comfortable to name and confront evil, but we cannot be too attached to comfort if we want to make the world better.”
If we detect injustice, deception, even evil, how do we make a difference? How can we be both witness and activist? Wiesel has many answers, but the most human one, the one that can apply to us all, is: “[O]ur success in responding to world changing events is often measured by the small moments and encounters. If we can act with greater sensitivity to others, if we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history. But I believe it can.”
We can protest by knowing, and remembering, and recognizing the pattern in our own city, state, or country. We resist and act for change by giving our money, supporting a candidate, casting a vote. Before we can do any of those things, though, we must look and listen to see what is right in front of us and name it for what it is, and then lift up our hearts and voices if need be. We may feel small in the face of events, we may feel nameless in the vast sweep of history, and we may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our times. We can choose any number of options to contribute good to the world, but the one thing we cannot ever allow to take hold within ourselves is apathy. A paqo engages life with khuyay, passion. Passion does not have to be grandiose, only sincere. Every day we can make a difference if we cultivate our munay and share it. We can, as Wiesel says, echoing so many other wisdomkeepers throughout history, simply “touch one person every day with compassion.”
That advice might seem cliché, but if we feel that it is, it only shows us how jaded we have become. If we can’t be compassionate, helpful, and respectful to someone who is right in front of us, how can we feel compassion for, stand witness to, and act to alleviate the suffering of those whom we know only through a newspaper, television, or Internet story? Near or far, suffering is suffering. Injustice is injustice. Prejudice is prejudice. Evil is evil. We have to take the world as we find it, which means each of us must take ourselves as we find ourselves. The world is not “other”—each of us is the world. So we change ourselves first. We put into practice our ethics, our compassion, our listening, our voicing, even our mystical techniques. Then we seek out our ayllu—our community of compatriots—and together we witness and act.
Elie Wiesel World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org), http://www.swiss-image.ch/Photo by Sebastian Derungs
Bhutan, Child: By I, Tyabji, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2470746
Sebrencia Massacre Victim Skull: Photo by Adam Jones, adamjones.freeservers.com
One thought on “The Paqo as Witness and Activist”
Silence is denial… this is exactly why we campaign for recognition of the Armenian Genocide every year – the first genocide of the 20th Century, and the one on which Hitler based his grand plan… Awareness of the past is what will heal the future. As long as we continue to collectively ignore the past, we are stuck in a time loop. Thanks for your writing!