“And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
On my drive into work this morning, I caught the latter half of an interview with Nicholas Winton, the “British Oskar Schindler,” who helped rescue over six hundred Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia just before World War 2. Recognizing the impending danger, Winton helped coordinate a number of trains to get the children to Britain, where families had volunteered to take them in. He was later reunited with some of those children – since grown – in 1988, recorded by the BBC. It is a very moving scene, particularly considering that the last train carrying children did not make it, and all of its evacuees were believed to have died in concentration camps.
Winton is now 105 years old, and the interviewer asked him a range of questions about his role in the evacuations, his view of himself as a hero (he wanted no part of this), and his thoughts on the changes in the world that he had seen over his very long life. Overall, he said, he was pessimistic about the way the world has changed. We’ve grown more efficient at killing each other, and seem mired in conflict and unable to get out of our own way.
The key, or “the only way out,” as he put it, is finding commonality with each other through ‘ethics.’ As a child, he embraced his own Jewish heritage, but then converted to Christianity. Later, he grew disillusioned with religion altogether when he learned that religious figures on both sides of World War 2 were praying for their own countries to win. I wanted to quote his exact words, so I found this print version of the interview.
““I know crowds of people who go to church and the synagogue who aren’t religious. What is needed is something in which they can all believe irrespective of religion, which in most cases, dare I say it, is a facade. We need something else, and that something is ethics. Goodness, kindness, love, honesty. If people behaved ethically, no problem.”
I quote him here not to bash religion, but because I think that there’s hope in his simple reminder to see commonality first, to get down to some shared core values that go beyond our divisions. There will always be variation in humanity – biological, ethnic, religious, social class, ideological, gender, sexuality, etc. That variation is inevitable, and in many ways it is beautiful. But there is also a tendency for those factions to clash, with the potential to create a lot of suffering. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? So, Winton’s pessimism about the future is completely understandable. However, he offers a formula to ameliorate things, by going beyond our divisions, extending compassion to others, and by trying to understand ourselves (to the extent that we can):
“It needs more than that. It needs a complete reconception of life. Too late for me. ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of Mankind is Man.’ Whether that works I don’t know. It’s hasn’t worked so far.”
There’s always hope.