On his walk along the dunes of Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau came across a shelter for wayward sailors and fishermen. As he approached the hut, not knowing what he would find, his apprehension grew. He noticed a small hole in the knotty pine of its construction and peered through. “For the pupil shall be enlarged by looking,” he writes. “There never was so dark a night that a faithful and persistent eye would not prevail.” Thoreau was teaching us about the courage and faith needed to look in to the unknown.
As 2021 comes to a close, our challenge as a nation is to have the courage to investigate our history and seek truth—as messy, complex, and uncomfortable as that truth might be. At the same time, we must have equal courage not to allow that past to stand in the way of a brighter future.
I still remember the dim lights, retched smells, and growing terror I felt every time my mom, dad, and I entered the elevator of my uncle’s apartment building in the Bronx. I was four or five years old. The numbers tattooed on my uncle’s arm, and his many silver teeth, were questions I didn’t ask, maybe too frightened to know the answers.
Years later, I learned. To this day, I have an innate and irrational fear of German Shepherds, just as ground-feeding birds react to shadows that come from above. When my good friend turned sixty, he had a concentration camp number tattooed on one arm. On the other arm, the words, “Never Forget!” That is what I grew up with. While there are some who deny the facts of the Holocaust, I will never forget.
At the same time, I remember the extraordinary privileges of my life. Frank Capra could not have written a better script. The child of an immigrant, the first in my family to attend college, economic mobility, access to great health care, a daughter who achieved a first-class education, and the joys of day-to-day life. All of this, for the most part, free of persecution. Antisemitism is at an all-time high, and yet I live in peace and great privilege. I hold both truths in my head and heart.
The nightmares of oppression, genocide, racism, and slavery in our nation’s history are just as real as stories of opportunity, social and economic mobility, and the American dream. Truth and hope are not at opposite ends of a continuum, never to be embraced simultaneously. Holding on to both—just as “two eyes make one in sight,” as Frost writes—provides the clarity of vision to make good on the promise of our democracy.
Lies beget lies, and truth is the only path to justice. The truth can turn a downward spiral of conflict into a widening gyre of hope. But we must choose to lift, rather than harness, our collective and unifying desire to build a better tomorrow. As we begin to construct this future, history should be the foundation; truth, courage, and compassion the bricks; and love the mortar.
That is our collective challenge. To hold truth and hope simultaneously is a gift, and one that we can share as people who live on this earth together. This is my prayer for this holiday season, 2021.