In his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher Browning details how a group of very average, middle aged, German citizens slowly morph into a group of mass murderers. It’s a brilliant book and I’ve been thinking a lot about it these past weeks as news of the conditions at the detention camps on our southern border are made public.

In his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher Browning details how a group of very average, middle aged, German citizens slowly morph into a group of mass murderers. It’s a brilliant book and I’ve been thinking a lot about it these past weeks as news of the conditions at the detention camps on our southern border are made public.

I put myself in the position of a guard at these camps, which really are concentration camps. What would it be like to stand, or sit, while children wail and go hungry and uncared for? What do you have to do, psychologically and spiritually to tolerate and justify your behavior?

The painful, brutally honest, truth is that we all need to do at least some compartmentalization, the process of splitting ourselves into different parts such that our pain and humanity is segmented off into our unconscious, to survive this material world. We all drive by people experiencing homelessness and do nothing. If we are paying attention we know that there are children going hungry in schools because their parents cannot afford lunch and we do nothing. We have seen parents, triggered and at their wits end, yell at children in stores and we walk by.
Children are mistreated with staggering frequency in all human societies and adults, generally, look away. From this passive form of neglect and maltreatment it’s only then a few short steps to the active forms of maltreatment found in the camps.

Part of the reason for our ability to ignore the humanity of ourselves and others is that we come to learn that our individual action for justice or goodness is so ineffective. One image of action in the world is a stone dropping in water. The ripples move outward and influence the water far from the stone. But the distance of impact changes as the density of the liquid increases. A stone may cause ripples for many feet in water, but only fractions of an inch in liquid cement, and human society is more like the cement than water. We all know what happens when you try to fight city hall. More often than not, nothing. Your idea or protest or plea gets swallowed in a morass of karmic plasma, shunted to committee, or investigation, or phone bank never-never land, and soon it is gone. Or worse, if you’re a whistle blower, you get investigated, or you loose your job, or your future promotion. So most give up. It takes an above average amount of strength, hope, and communal support to continue to activate for change in such a world.

I ponder the spiritual dimension of these truths. If the Spirit (or mind or love or quantum entanglement, or whatever you’d like to call it) moves more like air or thought than liquid, can we not also effect some change by channeling our spiritual energy throughout the world? But to do this we must open ourselves to the pain of the world, not just in theory, but in actual felt experience. This also is an unpopular activity.

Can we feel the pain of the children, and of the guards? Can we absorb one iota of their suffering and give back some love? Does this spiritual action make a difference, any more than the phone call to my Senators who still will not clearly denounce these camps? I think so, but I can’t definitively prove it does.

But there is another important dimension to this spiritual work: the effect it has on us as individuals and those around us. Remember that the Ordinary Men became killers as a result of the process of compartmentalization. The spiritual life works against this process. It brings all of our parts into the light of our practice and heals all of our divisions.

The life of contemplation revives and restores our humanity and, because it forces us to sit with the pain of the world, it also causes us to become more compassionate and empathetic. Much of my political activism and spiritual activism has had little recognizable effect.

But I do know that my ongoing spiritual life helps me to become less like the Ordinary Men, and that’s at least a partial victory, and certainly a victory I can live with.

Wolpert is co-director of the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH), located northeast of Crookston.