Thursday, December 18, 2008

Humbled by a "Hunter"

Last night I had the privilege to see an incredible documentary about the extraordinary life of Simon Wiesenthal. Mr. Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust and imprisonment in several European concentration camps, and went on to become an infamous "Nazi Hunter," who helped track down and capture Nazi war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and non-Jews alike. His lifelong search for information not only brought many perpetrators of atrocities to justice; but it also kept the reality of the Holocaust in the public eye at times when it was in danger of being swept under the rug.

If you watch the documentary, which I hope you will, you'll get a sense for how Wiesenthal did what he did, and all the struggles he experienced along the way. You'll also get some painful reminders of a shameful and horrendous part of human history, which I think we all need from time to time.

What struck me the most was the unswerving dedication to justice that was an integral part of Wiesenthal's life from the time of his "liberation" in 1945 until his death in 2005. Even though it kept him from having a normal life of his own, and subjected his family to long hours, unpopularity in their home country of Austria, and even direct attempts on his life, he persevered in seeking the justice he felt was his obligation as a survivor. His sense of justice and commitment to those who had perished around him became his life's mission. And he followed that mission exclusively until his death at 96.

Watching the movie clips from the concentration camps reminded me of standing on the soil at Auschwitz/Birknau in 1998 - and I once again felt the visceral impact that experience had on me, even 10 years later. I won't attempt to capture here what I felt in that place. But it's sort of like choking on grief and outrage and helplessness all at once.

After the film, I felt an overwhelming sense of being very, very small. The concerns that I felt before the movie -- what to pack for our holiday trip, whether to try to sell the condo, how to decorate the nursery -- seem not only trite, but they highlight how lucky and blessed we are to have what we have. G-d willing, I will never have to witness the brutal death of someone I love, I will never have to explain to my child why he or she has no living relatives, and my Jewish children will never live in fear because of who they are.

But perhaps most importantly, I hope I will never lose sight of my obligations to the rest of humanity. I have a responsibility to speak up against atrocities - like the ones currently happening in Darfur and the Congo -- by voicing my concerns to my representatives, supporting organizations that advocate for human rights, and even just mentioning these issues in my blog, so that maybe one or two of my readers might do the same.

I also think, that as privileged people (yes, we are -- even during hard times!) in a free country, one of our greatest responsibilities is to remember the horrors of the past and the plight of those in other parts of the world; to teach our kids the lessons of hatred and genocide; and to do our own small part to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

So join me, if you can, in taking a break from all the holiday madness this year -- the festivities, the fun, the fabulous gluttony -- and take up Mr. Wiesenthal's torch. We can help him keep his promise to the victims of the Holocaust (and victims of atrocities everywhere) that they will not be forgotten.

Visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When Afraid to Drown, Dive in

Why would someone who has a near-paralyzing fear of drowning (and hates being in a swimsuit) voluntarily choose to get in a pool every week?

I ask myself this question often as I flip-flop my way through the locker room at Georgia State in my 5+ year-old basic black swimsuit, slowing slightly for a glance in the mirror, then quickly speeding up again... as though my speed will somehow prevent my flaws from showing. I head for the shower, which is either ice cold or scalding, and then out to the pool room, which is invariably freezing cold.

I size up the available lanes, grab a kickboard and some water weights, and plunge myself into the cold water to start my weekly round of poorly-executed laps. I've never been an excellent swimmer -- proper form and technique escape me entirely -- and when I do the backstroke, I somehow manage to weave all over the lane. Looking up, I can see the windows leading to the workout room on the next floor... there are almost always skinny college girls the size of paper clips in tiny shorts on the treadmills above me. I imagine that if they were to look down and see me bumping erratically against either side of the lane, I would look like a drunk otter trying to make it home from a long night up the river.

In addition to the basic embarrassment factor; there's also the discomfort I so often feel in the water. I have a visceral fear of drowning (it stems from a childhood incident); so whenever I happen to get water up my nose or accidentally submerge in deeper-than-expected water, my heart flutters in a little mini-panic. It isn't as bad while I'm swimming laps in the pool as, say, snorkeling or rafting (my poor friends who have dared vacation with me!!); but it can still be distressing nonetheless.

So it's cold, it's tiring, it's mildly humiliating, and at some moments it's downright scary. And I'm terrible at it. So why do I do this to myself, week after week, year after year? Why not just stick to the safety of the treadmill or the trail?

There are several reasons.

First, swimming is great exercise (as most people know), and now that my pregnancy status has ruled out the running I was doing before, any no-impact exercise I can use to add variety to my life is a huge bonus.

Second, swimming is like many other things in life... the worse you are at it, the better it is for you. I love that. In most other sports, the better you are at something, the more you get out of it - and the less likely you are to get hurt. In weight training, for example, inexperience can mean wrenching your back or tearing a bicep. In team sports, the better you are, the longer you can play (and the longer your teammates will tolerate your presence). But with swimming, any schmuck can flail in a pool for 30 minutes and get a great workout; and it is really, really hard to hurt yourself swimming (believe me, I've tried!).

Those are both great reasons to swim. And while I may not look fabulous in my bathing suit, I know my body has benefited from years of huffing and puffing from one end of a pool to the other.

But the most important reason I swim is this: I refuse to let fear run my life. I am aware of that fearful voice whenever I get in the pool, though sometimes it is louder than others. It reminds me that water can be a powerful force and that I am just a frail human being who has relatively little control over her own life.

I'm also aware of the other swimmers, the lifeguards, and the treadmill girls above me -- most of them 10 years or more younger than I am and in better shape than I've ever been. I can hear another voice in my head, pushing me to compare myself to them, urging me to notice the differences between their bodies and my own.... and to feel ashamed.

But I won't. I won't skip my swim because of cellulite or flabby arms; and I won't let my fears from 2 decades ago determine how I spend my time today. Each time I get in the pool and begin my slow, labored progress to the other side, I free myself just a little bit -- from the world around me and from the voices inside. The water surrounds me in weightless equilibrium, and I can release the day's cares to the calm, rhythmic process of moving myself through the water. I don't concern myself with how I look or who may be watching me; and I don't think of my anxieties -- about drowning or anything else.

For me, swimming means 30 minutes of unadulterated freedom a week. In that sense, it not only makes sense; in fact, it would be worth almost any price.