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the fires within : At a Nazi Concentration Camp, a Writer Confronts His Own Darkness-and Finds the Tools to Transform the Forces That Can Destroy a Community, or Numb the Human Heart

January 09, 1994|Peter Levitt | Poet Peter Levitt received the Lannan Foundation fellowship in 1989. His recent books are "Bright Root, Dark Root" and "One Hundred Butterflies" (Broken Moon Press).

Ladybug, ladybug, Fly away home, Your house is on fire, Your children will burn. *

When I was a child, I sang this version of the nursery rhyme. It always frightened me to think of the last two lines. I used to imagine the terror in the poor ladybug's heart. I used to picture her fleeing through the air, more lightning bug or firefly than ladybug, to save her children from the deadly flames. Any parent would certainly do the same. Anyone , for that matter, would do whatever was needed to put out the fire. Wouldn't they?

But what about fires of a more subtle nature? Not less deadly, you understand, but more invisible at first, because they are more everyday and familiar. What about the low-level fires that burn constantly and quietly in the human heart, creating a continuity of background tension in our community, the ones that only flare up when personal and social conditions intensify the fuel load and people begin to burn from the inside out until we have the kind of flash-point fires we have witnessed in the hills and streets of our community? What about the fires that help kindle these explosions? Will we do what must be done to understand them and put them out? Or will we continue to turn from them, denying that they exist, or what is more common, justify them, giving all sorts of reasons why they are good fires, deserved fires, righteous fires, moral fires, our fires?

Of course, I am talking symbolically about the fires of suspicion, fear, hatred, misunderstanding and the belief that people we perceive as not like ourselves are somehow essentially other and therefore worthy of being seen in the distorted and distorting lightof these embers that threaten to consume us. Which is exactly what will happen if we do not look deeply at ourselves and transform these hot spots from the blindness of their heat to the potential of their light very soon. For we are a city on fire--a city where armed response proliferates in the neighborhoods of rich and poor alike, where the persistent contrast of privilege and neglect has created enough friction to whip the flames of hopelessness, frustration and rage into the twisted cycle of action and revenge.

It is not easy to talk this way. It is not pleasant to imagine we live in a city composed of volatile human embers that burn away largely unnoticed in the deep unconscious of our personal and collective mind. And it is especially uncomfortable to admit that we are part of that burning. It is threatening to our sense of who we believe ourselves to be. We are, in the main, good people after all. But when we dare to embrace the reality that we, in our most intimate feelings and thoughts, often burn in exactly this way, we have already done something constructive to help abate the potential rage of these fires. Our awareness is, then, a kind of controlled burn that transforms the raw energy of misunderstood and unexamined emotions into the energy for constructive action and hope.

And it only takes repositioning the finger that we so readily point at others and shifting our attention and awareness to ourselves for this transformation to begin. When we make this small but potent effort with the courage to know what we human beings are personally capable of in both creative and destructive ways, we take the first action needed to set these fires to rest. Or better yet, harness the fuel load they depend upon for their lives and put it to use for the benefit of others and ourselves. For when we look with care at our own unexplored, fear-driven suspicions and hatreds and how we project these onto the blank, faceless screens we have made of people we perceive as other , we unleash this potential and create the ability to be free of our own blindness. And the most beneficial way to approach this is with an attitude of inquiry and nonaggression toward ourselves--for we are not seeking to blame but to build a foundation of understanding and change.

I KNOW WE ARE CAPABLE OF DOING THIS BECAUSE OF WHAT HAPPENED to me as I stood in the remains of the concentration camp called Mauthausen in upper Austria. In 1990, I had been traveling through Europe on a writing grant and suddenly became possessed with the idea that I had to go where I most did not want to go and see what I most feared and had avoided thus far in my journey. (The process of looking deeply at oneself is often exactly like this.) I would go to the site of a Nazi concentration camp and witness one of the places where humans have enacted some of their worst crimes against other humans. Notice, even now as I write this, how I say humans and their. Even now, knowing what I know, I want to be safe. I want those who conceive and commit such atrocities as were enacted within the walls of the Nazi camps to be someone clearly and essentially other than myself. This need, which holds hope in its fist, dies hard.

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