Let’s start with the words of Parker Palmer,
“Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart, as in this Hasidic tale: A disciple asks the rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
So, a closed heart. It’s admittedly a strange place to begin a month of exploring Holding History. And yet, when we are honest, we know that defensiveness, protectiveness, and closed doors rule our relationship with history more than we’d like.
For instance, very few of us have pasts without pain woven through. And it’s just easier to shut out those traumatic times than confront them head on. We are all well taught in the game of sweeping old wounds under the rug.
And of course, there’s the unprocessed horrors woven throughout our cultural history. They are the rule not the exception, but we work hard to close ourselves off from them with standard lines like, “At our best, this isn’t who we are!” or “As Americans, we’re better than this!” The truth is we’ve never consistently been “better than this.” Amnesia rather than a courageous and honest reckoning describes the current character of America’s heart.
All of which is to say that there is a deeper relationship between history and vulnerability than we often recognize. Without a heart willing to feel pain and endure grief, the fullness of our histories just can’t enter in. Talking about past mistakes requires the ability to vulnerably say I’m sorry. An honest telling of racism requires the painful acceptance that some of us still benefit from the prejudices and oppression of our ancestors. Healing historical racism requires someone suffering the costs of reparations. And telling your full story requires navigating grief over choices you wish you would have made differently.
It certainly seems the rabbis were right. Like those holy words, history in its fullness just sits there until our hearts break open and allow it in.
So let’s not just “remember” this month. Let’s not just talk of telling truthful tales. Let’s prepare to grieve, to confess, to feel, to forgive. The world needs broken-open hearts, not just good historians. That is, indeed, the only way the past gets in.