There was a large World War II-era cannon that rested proudly outside the American Legion Hall (Post 1812 Holla!) where I grew up, in Plainview, Long Island. It was probably the first landmark I ever noticed, because it stood out from all the symmetrically cut bushes, lawn Jockeys and Firebird Trans-Ams (the poor man’s sports car) I passed each day on my way to school.
I was enamored with it. I remember climbing on it, hanging on its long barrel, legs dangling then dropping to the ground to scamper around to the back, shouting pretend-orders (“fire in the hole!”) to pretend-comrades before my mom pried my hands away and walked me home. I had no clue what an American Legion Hall was, but I knew I was passing one because it had a huge cannon and that huge cannon made the Legion Hall important because it all somehow communicated a quiet strength and pride.
At their best, landmarks and monuments convey a message and evoke universal exchange between viewer and subject. Some messages stand the test of time, while others have a shorter shelf-life, where the intended message of the artist and those who commissioned the piece take on different, unintended symbolism to later generations. For example, monuments that once paid tribute to the Confederacy and even the founding fathers have trended away from being sacrosanct to becoming flashpoints for debate, as many people have called for their removal.
I am not trying to take a side but, personally, I freeze up at the idea of permanently removing anything historical. Scrapping these disturbing and misguided chapters from the visual landscape feels a little bit wrong. After the initial effects of taking a stand against the ideas of the Confederacy and white supremacy have gone away, there remains something holistically hollow about the effort.
When we suffer through mistakes, traumatic experiences, or some other kind of monumental setback, we – collectively or individually – can choose to travel down one of two paths: denial or acceptance. Denying a mistake allows you to move on faster, washing it from your memory. It inoculates you for a time from the raw, throbbing sting of emotions – the regret, pain, remorse, and guilt. It seems far more comfortable than acceptance, but denial alone will not lead to improvement or resolution.
If you are strong enough to do it, I advise accepting the situation, mistake, or shame. Own it, live with it, and think about it. It can help you heal, understand yourself, and perhaps prevent similar occurrences in the future.
Mistakes are a chance to redefine yourself,
motivate you, and ultimately decide what you want to do next
Throughout the Torah and Nach, our mistakes are out in the open. Noach, b’nos Lot, Moshe Rabbeinu, David HaMelech, Shaul HaMelech, Shlomo HaMelech, the entire Dor HaMidbar are a few entries from a longer list of those who made mistakes. Rather than being seen as shameful events ignored or glossed over, they are embraced. Monumental and embarrassing as these sins are, what they really do is teach us truths about ourselves, give warnings not to repeat them, and even foreshadow great achievement because of them.
In Parshas Chayei Sarah, Eliezer was told directly that he was inferior and therefore unfit to marry into Avraham’s family. He came from Cana’an, he was cursed, his family was not the kind of stock Avraham wanted Yitzchak to marry. Ouch!
Eliezer didn’t get close to Hashem and Avraham all this time to just be insulted. He could have picked up his toys and left the sandbox right there, wondering what all his service had been for if this was his thanks. Rabbi Moshe Bamberger, citing the Vilna Gaon, taught that Eliezer did just the opposite. He accepted his role, acknowledged his shortcomings, trusted in Hashem, and set out to be the best servant he could be. The result was that he played a crucial part in the continuum of the Avos by finding Rivkah Imeinu and bringing her to Yitzchak. He also triumphantly reversed the curse on his family and became blessed.
Completely denying your past just pushes you backwards. Former Soviet countries have had to deal with the issue of deciding what to do with the several thousand communist landmarks that dot their landscape. The Ukrainian government enacted de-communization laws, banning all communist symbols, street names, and statues. Thousands of statues of Vladimir Lenin have been toppled and towns have reverted to their pre-Soviet names – whether the people liked it or not. Ironically, these laws seeking to scrub away relics of Soviet totalitarianism are being carried out in a kind of Soviet, totalitarian way.
I like what Lithuania did better. They created Grūtas Park, an area where relics and totems of the Soviet Union have been collected into one central location. They pay little to no homage to the Soviet state but also don’t try to deny its occurrence. They call it “Stalin Land” – it’s actually a short drive away from Vilna.
Cato the Elder said:
“After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.”
Perhaps we should try taking all those Confederate statues and put them in one enclosed park, like they did with Stalin Land. Replace the monuments with markers explaining what used to be there even adding some scathing details of the beliefs held by those who put them up. It would be an honest, demonstrative, and more creative thing to do. Tearing something down will not erase what happened but channeling it into something new can enhance the future.
Chazal inform us that there is a short list of people who never sinned, but as incredibly great as individuals are, they seem outshined by the likes of Moshe Rabbeinu, David HaMelech, and others, despite committing sins. Life is not about being perfect or having a clean slate.
Mistakes are a chance to redefine yourself, motivate you, and ultimately decide what you want to do next. Mistakes are rarely warm and fuzzy like the Care Bears, they can be frightening, awful, heartbreaking experiences that can knock wind out of you. As bad as that sounds, ignoring them could be worse.
Michael Stevens likens one’s past to arborglyphs – carvings on the bark of a sapling: He says:
“Over time, the scar, the carving won’t go away. Because of the way trees grow, it won’t go up or down much either, it’ll just stay right where it began…but it won’t get bigger. You however can. You can keep growing, doing more things, more branches, being more things. The wound won’t get smaller but you can make it a smaller part of who you are.”
Mistakes are only a starting point.
Simcha Loiterman sees the world from a critical yet open perspective. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone; everyone has stories to tell, lessons to teach and kindles a spark of goodness inside of them. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations. Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.