Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons from Alice Herz-Sommer: "Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one's need to think."

Several months ago, I expounded on a profound statement from Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor.  An unfailing optimist in even the worst of times, Alice kept a positive attitude and chose to look forward to the future rather than dwell in the past.  (The two books I read about her life and her philosophy were inspiring; you can read those reviews here.  She also appears in several youtube videos well worth watching, both spoken interviews and musical performances.)  It's been a while, but I've been thinking about an incident from her life and wanted to explore what it might mean.

Adolf Eichmann was one of the organizational masterminds behind the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to entirely eliminate the Jewish people.  He oversaw the concentration camps and was the "Transportation Administrator" - oh, the euphemisms! - in charge of the deportation of Jews to ghettos and death camps.  He believed so fervently in his work of extermination that even when his superior officer Heinrich Himmler ordered him to halt the work of death and focus on destroying evidence, he refused and continued to send men, women, and children to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz.  After the war he managed to escape, and spent 15 years living in Argentina before being captured by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and returned to Israel to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In 1960, Alice was living in Jerusalem and attended Adolf Eichmann's trial.  She took particular note of one portion of his testimony: “I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s need to think.”

I've been chewing over this quote ever since reading the books.  Obedience is generally lauded as a good quality.  As a parent, I sure like it when my children obey me right away, no questions asked - in large part, I like it because it makes my life easier.  If my children do as they are told instantly, it's less work for me.  It's also quicker.  I don't have to stop and explain why I want them to pick up their clothes, go feed the chickens, or do their homework.  Of course, there are advantages for them, too.  If they are about to do something dangerous and are obedient when I tell them to stop, they can be saved from pain or trouble.  If they respond immediately when I ask them to do chores, they can develop good habits that will help them later in life.  So obedience to parents is a good thing.

But then there are horribly abusive parents.  Or those who use their children to help them commit crimes.

In the military, following orders is paramount.  You can be court-martialed, jailed, and dishonorably discharged for disobeying a direct order.  Instantaneous and affirmative response is vital to successfully achieving military objectives and is absolutely expected and necessary for the military to function smoothly, to protect our vital national interests.  So obedience in a military setting is good.

But then there's the Holocaust.  Or Abu Ghraib.  Or My Lai.

In a religious setting, we often hear about the importance of obedience, too.  An omnipotent God gives us commandments that He knows will help us be happy, so it would be foolish to disregard them.  And Church leaders are His mouthpiece on earth; therefore, we should immediately follow their guidance as well.  So obedience within the framework of a church is good.

But then there's the Mountain Meadows massacre.  Or mass suicides by cult members.  Or the Inquisition.

Personally, I think anything that encourages one to "reduce to a minimum one's need to think" is dangerous. I'm immediately suspicious of any group, organization, philosophy, or person that attempts to dissuade people from thinking for themselves, or even tries to dampen curiosity.  My first thought is, "What are they afraid of?"  My second is, "What are they hiding?"  Truth and goodness can withstand the most minute examination and have nothing to fear from questions.

If someone else is making all the decisions and we simply do as we're told without question, life would certainly be easier, but then where is the opportunity for growth, the chance to become more than we are, to become better, stronger, more confident in our own abilities?  And isn't the point of this life to improve ourselves, to be a little smarter, a little kinder, a little better than we were?  If the point of obedience is mindlessness and stagnation, then I'm as anti-obedience as they come.

But I don't believe that choosing to be obedient necessarily equates to not thinking.  Isn't it possible to take a look at our options and decide that being obedient is the best choice we can make because what we are being asked to do is good and right?  Do we have to examine every request for our obedience with the same rigorous examination, essentially reinventing the wheel every time?

Another point, being obedient or following orders certainly does not absolve us of the responsibility for our actions.  If we are ordered to do something that we know is wrong, obedience is not an excuse for carrying it out.  For example, the Nuremberg trials codified unequivocally that "following orders" was no defense for war crimes.  Everyone has a conscience, inner voice, angel/devil on the shoulder, the light of Christ, whatever you want to call it, that warns them when something isn't quite right and I believe we have a higher allegiance to that personal, individual guidance than to any external influence.

We shouldn't ever voluntarily give up our need to think, to consider, to ensure that what we are being told to do is in line with our personal moral code.  We cannot abdicate our responsibility to be accountable for our actions, whether we select them ourselves or choose to be obedient to others.  So we need to be extremely selective when deciding whom we should obey, and re-evaluate those decisions occasionally.

I don't have any real answers here, folks.  I've been struggling with trying to balance the see-saw of obedience and personal responsibility for decades now.  But then, I've always had over-developed sense of confidence in my own opinions.  I'd welcome your thoughts on the topic.

No comments:

Post a Comment