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To Bear Witness

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Arnold Whitaker’s story meanders along a circuitous path while his feet stand firmly on the auditorium floor. He addresses the 10th grade students who have stayed after school today and who will send him handwritten thank you notes tomorrow.  For many of these teenagers, this is their first opportunity to meet a World War II veteran and they listen attentively.  He tells them, “Every 89 seconds a World War II veteran dies.”  He is there to help them see what he has seen; to authenticate the history that he has lived and that they have only read in text books.

With the help of Microsoft PowerPoint, Whitaker recounts events of the war. Click: The Battle of the Bulge. Click: Crossing the Rhine. Click: Landing at Normandy. He interrupts his narrative to remind his listeners that he was only 19 years old when he arrived in Europe, an infantryman. He describes having endured physical suffering: marching for miles while wearing hundreds of pounds of equipment and digging foxholes for hours in punishing cold weather. Click: Men jumping out of airplanes.  Click: Men hanging by their parachutes in trees. Click: Men drowning off the shores at Normandy. “They didn’t make me a platoon sergeant because I was special,” he insists, but because he was the last one standing.

His slides show newspaper headlines and cartoons alongside photos of concentration camp victims and Eisenhower’s prayer for the troops before D-Day.  He shares a list of daily rations and recalls his constant hunger, explaining that the soldiers burned far more calories than they consumed.  Looking up at the slide he adds, “We saved the chewing gum and gave it to the children in the towns we liberated.”

Click: A drawing of soldiers enjoying a victory ride in the back of a jeep with a found gallon of cognac.  Click: A photo of a fallen comrade left lying in the snow, his bayonet standing at attention to mark his location, “so that the quartermaster might find him after the storm and give him a proper burial.” The students know– because their teacher has mentioned it– that Whitaker is the recipient of several medals for honor and bravery.  “They don’t give you medals because you’re brave,” he states emphatically.  “You just do what needs to be done to survive.  You save the fella next to you one day, and another day he saves you.”

Early in his presentation Whitaker holds up a worn copy of his Bible, issued to him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and tells the students that is was recently returned home by his grandson who was serving in Iraq.  But it isn’t until much later, near the end of his time with the students, that Whitaker draws a linear connection between his cold days in those foxholes and this warm afternoon in a high school auditorium.  He holds up another book, one that he has written about his experiences in the war. “My son is a pastor and he tells me that you’re not supposed to negotiate with God, but I did,” he admits.  “I promised God that if he let me live I would do all sorts of things, including tell this story so that people would know what really happened.  And that’s what I’ve been doing– fulfilling that promise– for 66 years.”

May God grant Arnold Whitaker the strength to continue to bear witness for many years to come.

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A Small Speck of Dust Blowing Past through the Air

Last week humanity marked an important anniversary: Fifty years ago on April 12th, Yuri Gagarin was the first person to see the earth from its orbit.  His excursion—108 minutes— was an historical event for all of us.  For a look at what Gagarin would have seen from space you can watch First Orbit, a film created by astronauts at the International Space Station to celebrate this occasion.

This week marks a different, but equally significant, anniversary.  On April 20th one year ago, the largest oil spill in American history began.  We cannot yet fathom the many ways in which we have irrevocably altered the ecosystem of the Gulf and of our planet.   Yet, with the many natural and man-made disasters that have occurred in the year since the spill, we have turned our attention elsewhere.  Our problems are vast, like our universe, and without an astronaut’s view from above they can be difficult to measure. Scientists are able to calculate the vastness of the universe, but only astronauts who have traveled into space can appreciate our diminutive nature.  We are but tiny creatures on a small speck of dust in the sky.  What I am able to see, from where I stand, is an infinitesimal segment of the whole.

An artist’s vision of how to mark this week’s anniversary helped to shift my perspective so that I could see the larger picture.  Rochelle Nation, a jewelry artist, found a way to use tar from the oil spill to create a lasting impression of this event.  In her Stained collection, she shows us a glimpse of the disaster; her pieces are a beautiful reminder that we have not yet completed our task of repairing the damage in the Gulf.  Moreover, by donating her profits to raise awareness about the continuing needs of Gulf Coast residents, Nation offers us an opportunity to help restore the fragile ecosystem.

It will be another fifty years, if not longer, until future generations can identify what was lost.  Perhaps the teachers of those human beings will employ one artist’s legacy to teach their enduring lessons.  In my mind’s eye, I can see them wearing their Stained necklaces, tiny amulets to guard against the forces of a vast and unknowable universe.

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Letting It Go

It’s really easy to tell people who are worried to “let it go.”  From even the slightest distance, we can clearly recognize how another person’s anxiety contributes to her problem rather than resolves it.  In my experience, however, it is easier to advise others to let things go than to heed my own advice.

My worst worries—like yours—are assigned to things that are completely beyond my control, things that I am powerless to change.  These things often cause me real distress and occasionally contribute to my insomnia.  But the type of pain that I am least adept at letting go is the shocked hurt I feel when other people project their anger or frustration in my direction.  My distress is magnified by two things: I am always surprised—despite having repeatedly witnessed the human capacity for hatred, I continue to be caught off-guard every time—and I never know how to respond.

When my children complain about other kids’ behavior, I am quick to remind them that you cannot control what other people say or do, only how you respond to them.  Taking responsibility for one’s own words and actions, and realizing that you are fully in control of your response to others, is paramount.  This isn’t just some parenting mantra for me; I try to model this behavior for them every day.  But inside my soul I struggle with letting go of the pain I feel when I find myself on the receiving end of an angry remark or a hateful email.

Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”  Reaching across centuries and oceans, Aurelius is telling me to let it go.  I am working toward heeding this sage advice.

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