‘We are more alike than different.” My old professor, Morrie Schwartz, told me that.
We were sitting in his home, watching the TV news, Morrie under a blanket, dying from ALS, his body already decayed beyond hope.
The fighting then was in Bosnia. We saw awful images, death and destruction. Morrie began to cry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“This is so terrible,” he whispered.
“Well, of course,” I said, embarrassed, “but you don’t know any of those people. Why are you crying?”
“Because,” he said, “when you really realize you’re going to die, as I do, you feel such empathy with anyone in the world who is suffering. Pain is pain. Dying is dying. It doesn’t matter where.
“We are more alike than different.”
Ever since Sept. 11, I have been waiting for such a sympathetic mood to hit me. I am embarrassed to say it has been slow in coming. The murderous threats of Osama bin Laden have made it hard for me to picture Taliban troops as any mother’s sons.
So when I hear about Taliban soldiers found shot in the head, when I see photos of a Taliban supporter being executed, when I see bodies over in the carnage of the Mazar-e-Sharif, I rationalize the horror.
“We are less alike than different,” I tell myself, contradicting Morrie.
I know I am wrong. But baby boomers like me, many of whom grew up hating war, now find themselves cheering military success. And America, a nation once bent on shrinking negative emotions, now finds unity in hatred, a hatred of the enemy.
Who are we becoming?
Readers want answers
Ever since Sept. 11, I have been swamped with letters from readers of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” asking, “What would Morrie say about this?” The questions come from people who, like myself, were moved by a dying man’s advice to seek a more meaningful, peaceful life. They wonder how you balance peace with war. What would Morrie say? I have given it a lot of thought. Here is the answer:
He would say, “Keep teaching.”
Teach the wonder of humanity. Teach the unity of mankind. Teach in your heart what you know to be true, if not to those who are warped beyond hearing it, then to the young and open-minded.
Because the only real hope in this new and terrible war lies in one word: education. Theirs and ours.
It lies in reaching young Muslim boys who, at this very moment, are being brainwashed to hate us. It lies in dismantling the madrassas in Pakistan and the fundamentalist schools in Saudi Arabia.
It lies in clerics teaching followers that belief in one religion is not a mandate to wipe out all the others.
And it lies in Americans teaching our children that the world is a varied place, and, like it or not, as the richest and most privileged nation, we must be sensitive to how we are perceived.
We can bomb, shoot and kill. Without changing the views of the young, we are plucking weeds from the top.
Our hope for the future
Morrie often quoted a phrase from his favorite poem, “Love each other or perish.” He didn’t mean hold hands with the next Al Qaeda chief you meet. He meant love the idea of each other, particularly the idea that the next generation can be smarter and kinder than the previous one.
That is our best hope. Teach. Educate. How often have we seen poor foreigners celebrating over the corpse of a soldier? It is hard for most Americans to imagine, right? Why? Because we know better.
We know that death in war is necessary but not joyous, that war is a condition the educated seek to get out of, not to revel in.
We know that when you die, your uniform can be removed and what is left is not a partisan but a dead human being.
We know all this because we have been taught it. Just as we have been taught that sharing the world is better than destroying it.
In the end, my old professor was right. We are more alike than different. But only a chorus of teachers’ voices will ever make it so.