This is an important message to ponder as we move through life, facing the normal ups and downs of living. We all experience times when we forget who we are and lose our way.
In order to provide guidance, all great religions and philosophies venerate their ancestors. Who are the great people who have gone before us and what’s their message? It’s always very similar. In essence, it’s to do good for others, to love, to seek wisdom, to develop our potential and to leave a positive legacy for those who follow. If we’re doing less than this, we’re not fulfilling our potential.
This is why we celebrate our history and why we seek out quotes that help us to see the wisdom of the past. This is why we read biographies and make inspirational films. We need to be reminded of the greatness in others because when we embrace their essence, we become who we are meant to be.
We may ask ourselves, however, if our ancestors really did leave a legacy we want to follow. In many cases, they didn’t. Our ancestors were human, just like we are, and often they did horrible things. We need to remember, too, that our ancestors were more than what they had become, and perhaps it’s our purpose to make things right.
My German grandfather, for example, joined the Nazi party in the 1930s. He saw his country in chaos and at risk of becoming communist. He chose to give in to fear and accept the teachings of a racist, misogynistic madman who promised progress and prosperity. He later regretted his decision but he couldn’t change his past.
I could choose to deny or ignore Opa’s decision but I know that he was much more than this foul lapse in judgment – and so am I. His past is actually a profound source of inspiration to me in uncovering the truth, because if we are indeed serious about making “never again” a reality, we need to understand how the Holocaust happened. It happened because millions of people made the same fear-induced, ignorant choice that my grandfather made. It happened because not enough people in the world had the courage to stop this horrible movement until it was too late.
The lesson for me and my generation is to ask how history will judge us. Are we doing all we can to make a more loving and just world, or are we conforming to ignorance and injustice? Who are we as a society? Are we the best that humanity has to offer or are we willing to compromise our principles?
Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to choose.
We have no control over the past but we do control how we respond in the present. We don’t control the future but we do determine the legacy we leave, positive or negative.
We are indeed more than what we have become, and becoming our best selves is not only a challenge for each of us, it’s a challenge for all of humanity. The more of us who choose to do good, the better our world becomes.
Greatness lives in all of us.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.