Magicians and scientists know that what we expect to see affects what we will see. Every time my parents visited me in NYC, I experienced this firsthand.
Dad expected pushy people and lots of graffiti. Inevitably, that’s what he saw. Mom, on the other hand, saw bright lights and fascinating characters.
A GREETING OF HOPE
At the Global Feminist Disarmament conference (Barnard, June 1982), I took part in a ritual of expectation that has had a lasting effect on me
One woman at the conference was secretly designated the “Peacemaker.” The rest of us were instructed to circle the room, greeting each other with the question, “Are you the Peacemaker?” We were told that, when we found her, the Peacemaker would ordain us as sister peacemakers.
I remember thinking, dear God, this is gonna take forever. What a stupid waste of time.
But a surprising thing happened. After only a few minutes, the Peacemaker’s blessing had touched enough of us so that we found ourselves anointing each other, recognizing each other as peacemakers. More importantly, we nodded yes when asked, “Are you the Peacemaker?” “Yes. Yes I am.” We were transformed.
A GREETING OF CONFORMITY
Decades earlier, another greeting had a profound effect on people. Within weeks of the Nazi’s rise to power, the “Heil Hitler” salute was made mandatory. It became the normal greeting on the street, at work, in school. People had “Hitler” on their lips and in their heads all day long.
Students were required to begin class with the salute. At first, teenaged Hiltgunt Zassenhaus (1916-2004) refused. Her friends said, “Just raise your arm and mumble something. Why get into trouble for this? It’s just a gesture.” She persisted, was sent to the principal, and threatened with expulsion.
The teacher looked the other way until the day an authority came to observe the class. That day, with everyone watching, Zassenhaus stood when the class stood. When they raised their arms, so did she — but she deliberately thrust her arm through a window by her desk and had to be rushed to the hospital. Her defiant gesture was a metaphor for bloodshed to come.
Eventually, Zassenhaus used the salute to camouflage her work in the resistance to the Third Reich, described in her powerful memoir, Walls.
These two greetings represent a contrast in expectations. “Are you the Peacemaker?” holds the expectation of hope, of finding the best in the person being greeted and being reminded of our own best potential when the greeting is returned. “Heil Hitler” holds the expectation of conformity, fear, and obedience to authority.
MY FAVORITE HASIDIC FOLKTALE
The abbot of a dying monastery sought the advice of a wise rabbi. “I only have four elderly monks left,” he wept. “They’re sad and surly. What can I do?”
The sage shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear this, my friend, and a bit surprised. You see, rumor has it that the Messiah is one of you.”
The abbot returned with the rabbi’s message. The monks were mystified. They began to wonder about each other with a new generosity of spirit. Could Brother Thomas be the Messiah? He’s slow; then again, he’s patient and kind. Maybe it’s Brother Phillip; he seems simple; maybe it’s innocence. Once in awhile, they dared ponder the unthinkable: “Could it be me?” and with that thought came the faintest glimmer of possibility.
Now, when travelers passed the monastery, they found a few old men who radiated love and showed each other deep respect and compassion. People began stopping by to picnic on the lawn, just to be near them. Soon, the monastery was thriving again, all because of a few words from a wise rabbi.
To Go Deeper
~ Walls: Resisting the Third Reich, One Woman’s Story by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus (Beacon Press, 1976) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/875646.Walls
~ “The Rabbi’s Gift” (one of many variations) http://www.community4me.com/rabbisgift.html
~ My Mom at A Chorus Line
~ Do you see the face hidden in the dove? Logo from Women PeaceMakers, U. of San Diego, Institute for Peace and Justice
~ Adults and children giving the Nazi salute
~ Study of Monks “For a Panel in St. Aidan’s Church, Leeds,” Source: Sparrow, Prints and Drawings by Frank Brangwyn. Credit: Internet Archive and the Ontario College of Art and http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/brangwyn/drawings/18.html