Evil & Hope: Marilyn

By Joe White

Evil and hope are abstract concepts that my friend Marilyn Gevirtz made so poignantly real to me at breakfast recently. Stories are such gifts and I thank Marilyn for her story.

Waking this morning, thinking back on that breakfast conversation, I started my day reading the news. Hunting down the suspects, one young man shot and killed by police another in custody while authorities are in pursuit of others responsible for the indiscriminate bombings at a marathon in Boston, then, from Syria, the use of chemical weapons against civilians, then the millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of a variety of wars, such are the headlines on this sunny spring day. Eighteen years ago, as also reported, a politically paranoid man killed 168 innocent people, adults and children, with a truck bomb at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The touch of evil can implant a deep sense of cynicism, undermining one’s trust in humanity’s capacity for good will. Evil can also instill pessimism, undermining one’s hope for humanity’s future well-being. Yet hope always seems to flower, typically quiet, modest, unexpected to renew a sense of optimism and to energize our efforts to create a better world. This is what Marilyn reminded me.

Marilyn has lived through much of the twentieth century. Born during the Great Depression, coming of age during World War II, she grew up in Los Angeles in a Jewish family. As the war ended, the unfolding, incomprehensible horrors of an industrial genocide, systematically undertaken by the Nazis against millions of men, women and children, stunned the world. Some survivors of the concentration camps came to Los Angeles to try to build new lives during a tense Cold War. As a young woman, Marilyn grew up in this shocking, tragic historically tense time.

At our breakfast, Marilyn, ever elegant and gracious, asked about the 2020 A Year Without War project that I was involved with starting at Santa Barbara City College. AYWW is just celebrating its first birthday. Marilyn had been one of our early, generous donors. As we spoke, it seemed to me that her generosity had been more a reflection of our friendship than her belief in supporting the success of A Year Without War. As with so many people I have spoken to on behalf of AYWW, she too was voicing pessimism. What of the warmongering bluster coming out of North Korea, the melt down and cruelty in Syria, the chronic dysfunction in Afghanistan and amongst the Palestinians, the stubborn recalcitrance of the present Israeli government, the hijacking of the Egyptian Arab Spring by the Moslem Brotherhood and, oh yes, the repressive, radioactive ayatollahs of Iran? Then, for her, came the flood of memories of The Holocaust. She smiled suggesting A Year Without War is noble but naïve. History does not warrant optimism and present political players instill nothing but cynicism.

I saw Marilyn’s world. I confessed that my small hope for A Year Without War hangs mainly and delicately from the thin thread of this millennial generation. I believe this tech savvy, cosmopolitan, tolerant generation, being more focused upon big, global issues involving our species’ very survival, want to build a global community capable of tipping history away from war, at least for one year. Previous generations have successfully eliminated the pervasive, socially sanctioned practice of slavery, after it had been embraced for centuries in all civilizations. Eliminating war should be easier than ending slavery as slavery provided a way of life beyond economics while war takes life and ultimately steals from the economy. Then Marilyn smiled and said she wanted to tell me a story from her childhood.

Her experience, as a young girl just starting grade school, was not pleasant. Throughout her first year, she cried everyday at school. She wasn’t quite sure why but everyday she cried. While this upset her classmates and perturbed her teacher, her crying bouts were not known at home. Starting in second grade, once back in the classroom, her crying commenced again. This time her second grade teacher informed Marilyn’s mother of her daughter’s crying and the need to do something as it was simply too disturbing to the class. Marilyn had no ready explanation for her mother as to why she was crying everyday at school.That evening, Marilyn’s father told her they needed to have a talk. Sitting in his big chair, her father put her in his lap and asked why she was crying everyday in school. With no clear explanation forthcoming, her father, whom she loved so very much, reminded her that the next day was his birthday. The finest present she could give him on his birthday was just one day at school not crying. Don’t worry about the days or weeks after, he instructed, just one day, his birthday. Nodding and smiling, she said she would try.

The next day at school, Marilyn found herself sitting at her desk. It didn’t take long for that lump to appear in her throat. Sure enough, it started growing. She could even feel tears pressing around her eyes as that lump grew. It became hard to even swallow but she held that lump down. She held it down and the tears back the whole day. That day, on her father’s birthday, she did not cry, not once. And from that one day on, she never cried again in school.

Marilyn and I looked at each other and I thanked her. That is the story of 2020 A Year Without War. Maybe, for just one year, we can stop war so that the millions, if not billions, who cry daily the tears of war can stop and maybe cry the tears of war no more. Please visit the A Year Without War website and join AYWW on June 4 at the Marjorie Luke Theatre for the world premiere of Following the Ninth, a documentary on the contemporary, global impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s celebration of the brotherhood of mankind.