20 Feb 2018

How a Graveyard Changed My Life

In 1973, I was 13 years old. Dad had been transferred to a Canadian military base in West Germany as part of Canada’s NATO commitment. Growing up as a military brat, I had grown accustomed to a transient lifestyle. It also gave me a broader view of the world as I found that people were pretty much the same wherever I went.

A week after we arrived in Lahr, my family went for a drive through the local countryside. It was a beautiful sunny day and I brought along my camera. Dad parked the car and we made our way down a lane way. A cemetery appeared to the right. Beautiful flowers adorned the graves and the grass was neatly clipped. We had lived in Germany ten years before and mom told us she had forgotten how well Germans tended their graveyards. We wandered on a little further and came to another cemetery. But these gravestones were in disrepair and many were overgrown by grass and weeds.

I remember Mom expressing her surprise. In rusty German, she asked a boy in a nearby field why this graveyard was so badly tended. He answered briefly.
Mom looked at us, “It’s a Jewish graveyard.”

I recall staring at that cemetery and wondering how friends and neighbors could turn on one another. I believe the genesis of the Real Human Being philosophy started at that moment.

People have a choice to act with 3 different intentions:
1st gear is narrow self-interest behavior. Individuals acting in 1st gear will prioritize their own well-being to the detriment of others. Organizations see 1st gear manifested among their employees as entitlement, bullying, misogyny and “us against them” behavioral silos. Societies see first gear exhibited as racism, homophobia and ageism.

One aspect of reinforcing 1st gear groupism is the need to seek out an enemy: the “others.”
When Adolf Hitler wanted to create solidarity in his country, he needed to create pride. He did this by identifying “the others.” Then he had to purify his country from people who were not Aryan; Jews, Homosexuals, Communists, and even the mentally challenged. And so, 40 years later, my family came across a graveyard with no one left to love and remember and care for the graves of their relatives.

I have noticed that a sign of an individual becoming radicalized is the inability to tolerate the opinions of others. Extremism seeks the allure and comfort of uniformity. A free and democratic society is not a uniform one. Its strength stems from debate and discourse.

2nd gear is extrinsic reward. Many Germans were anti-Semitic because of 2nd gear incentive systems (cultural teachings, peer pressure, desire for promotion and status, fear of punishment). Many young people become radicalized by a need to belong to something bigger than them and by the excitement and allure of destroying “the others.”

3rd gear is intrinsic reward. It means “doing the right thing” or acting with empathy and ethics. It also means resisting 2nd gear retaliation and attempting to try to understand the actions of others. In individuals, it can be recognized as someone acting with kindness and compassion. In organizations, we see it as a servant-leadership culture. Trying to shifting to 3rd gear humanizes us as we look past another’s group (religion, nationality, gender etc.) and connect with them as a human being.

If we must fight or hate something, let’s fight extremism, intolerance, racism, sexism or any of the other 1st gear behaviors that plague every society. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had an elegant way of knowing there are all three gears in every tribe: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart?”

P.S. Here’s the end of the story. When we returned a week later, the grass in the graveyard had been neatly clipped. Sometimes just asking questions makes a difference.

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