I’ve recently had to face an implicit bias I’ve had for decades. I believed that being “good” meant weak, naive and docile; “evil” was strong, powerful and determined. “Good” was tranquil and “evil” was violent.
This view is confirmed in traditional fairy tales. Fair maidens, innocent children and unsuspecting girls vs. ogres, witches and angry mobs. But I’m all grown up now. I should know better.
As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve heard my dad been asked, “Why didn’t you [leave, fight back, run away]? When you’re living through a set of circumstances that never existed before, you can’t possibly comprehend what the future may hold, what response it deserves or what is possible.
I understand this now. We’re currently living through a convergence of circumstances that is new for all of us: the worsening effects of climate change, a worldwide pandemic and a political climate that has polarized people from around the globe, to name a few.
Not knowing what the future holds makes me feel weak and unprepared to change its course for the better, much like my father felt when faced with his bleak future. But my father will tell you that he survived because of his anger. At 16, he was angry that he had to leave his home and all belongings to enter a ghetto, so he buried his beloved books, hoping to retrieve them later. He was furious that a Nazi was going to separate him from his mother and sister, so he lied to keep them together. He was livid working as a slave laborer, so he risked his life to steal a photograph of his foreman, to use as evidence against him if he survived.
While I share some of my father’s DNA, I don’t share his intimate experience with trauma and terror. My father met evil with anger and rightly so. His anger fueled his existence and that helped save him. Growing up, I came to believe that those who were murdered weren’t angry enough. They were benevolent, naive and good.
But how could I be “good” and still survive this crazy, unpredictable, unprecedented world? And could I do more than survive? Could I live in this world and make a difference when anger is just one reaction in my emotional storehouse and not my reason for being? Is it possible to be kind, powerful, benevolent, strong and determined all in one?
Of course it is. But it wasn’t always obvious to me. It’s easy for me to see these strong, resolute qualities in others. People on the global stage like Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist, Malala Yousafsai, the education activist and youngest Nobel Prize laureate and most recently, Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet, come to mind, as well as first responders to disasters and front-line workers.
But was I anything close to these game changers? A paradigm shift was in order if I wanted to break free of my bias. I had to shrink the scale of their actions into my own attainable goals and then reexamine.
Well… there was that time that I, all 5’3” and 100 lbs of me, jumped on the back of a bodybuilder who was attacking my friend. I know I made a difference then. I am tenacious when it comes to fighting for my childrens’ health. I never settle or give up on them. And I did publicly object when a graduate school professor doubted the validity of The Diary of Anne Frank.
It’s time for me to shake up my definition of good and evil. Good can be loud and evil, silent. Just as the reverse is true. And sometimes we have to fight for “good” in the face of evil. So, maybe I have been good and powerful this whole time like so many other ordinary citizens – each in our own corner of the world.
About the author: Bonni Berger is a postpartum doula, lactation counselor, and writer. Her work has been published in Kveller, BLUNTmoms, GrownandFlown, DC Area Moms Blog, and Bethesda Magazine. She can be found in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and at www.bethesdadoula.com where she is loving the fourth trimester alongside her new-mom and dad clients.