Blankets and Bleeding Hearts

During World War II, my grandmother and grandfather were prisoners inside a uniqueGerman labor camp for captured soldiers and staff of the Red Army.  My grandpa was one of the lucky ones, in that since he had a college degree (in engineering mind you), he was pulled aside and granted special work detail to treat injured soldiers as a medical doctor.  I guess the Germans figured someone with a degree could figure out how to extract bullets, treat diseases and perform ghastly surgeries with little to no medical supplies. More likely, they just didn’t care.

It was while working in the camp that my grandpa met his one-day wife, a nurse.  The two of them worked almost continually each day from sunrise until well into the night, treating patients and witnessing the horrific injuries and traumas of the war.  The prisoners at the camp were malnourished, weak and received very little in the way of clothing or blankets, often freezing to death overnight.  One particularly harsh night, the nurse in question, my grandmother, gave out her last blanket to another prisoner who was shivering cold and sick.  To my grandmother she was just another cold and miserable prisoner in need, just like the hundreds who had come before. But that night, my grandmother saved a life with one simple act of kindness and empathy.  And that prisoner did not forget it.

As it turns out, that prisoner worked for the American Red Cross in the years after the war. She had never forgotten about that blanket or the woman who gave it to her, and lord knows how, managed to find her living in post-war Germany, in a little town called Rosenheim.  She sent a letter, asking them if they would like to move to America.  For my grandparents, this was an escape.  A way to put the horrors of the war behind them and give their new son, Eugene, the opportunities they never had living under one authoritarian leader after another.  The ink on their letter accepting the offer was hardly dry before it was shoved into an envelope and sent off.

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They immigrated in 1950, and soon after took residence in Rock Island, Illinois. Some years later they had a second son, Andrew, and moved to Washington State. They rarely if ever talked about the inhumanity they lived through.  They never sought any recognition for the lives they saved. They simply went about their business raising a family, working for local government and quietly supporting liberal and progressive causes for the rest of their lives.  They gave back to their community and they instilled one very important value to my father, who passed it on to me: everyone deserves freedom.  Freedom from fear. Freedom and the opportunity to live your life and make it better for the next generation.

And not everyone has freedom. And that’s a problem.  

I’m writing this as a sort of reflection of my own ideals.  I started out writing about how I think a liberal minded or conservative viewpoint is formed.  But as I delved into why families seem to impart their ideologies onto their children and how opinions coalesce over time I realized I was largely talking out of my ass.  The truth is I’m not oblivious to other viewpoints – I just think the people that hold them don’t have a story like the one above that is close to their heart.  The best thing I can do as someone who believes that fundamentally everyone deserves freedom is tell the story and hope that it gets passed on.

If I grew up in a different family, in a different part of the country with a different set of friends and experiences, I might balk at the notion of liberalism.  But conservatism I think boils down to a kind of pessimism masked as realism:  The system is bloated and corrupt.  People take advantage and abuse the system.  Poor people won’t do anything to help themselves. You could easily just merge those three statements into smart people are corrupt and poor people are lazy.  Sound familiar? It’s the veiled belief that some people are better than others.  And that easily gets twisted into the notion that some people are inherently more deserving than others, by choice or design, whether said out loud or baked into your brain with blind prejudices from infancy. More often than not it’s seen as a choice, because this is America, land of the free and home to equal opportunity.

But being liberal means you are also pessimistic. America isn’t free. Everything is not Bud-Lite and roses. America only aspires to be free. And that I think is a line in the sand.  As a liberal, you may cry wolf at both real and perceived threats to your rights and those of others at the drop of a hat.  But essentially, you believe in a brand of optimism.  You believe everyone deserves to be on an equal playing field, and that when given that chance, they can do great things. You believe that no one is inherently more deserving than anyone else, and no one chooses to be poor or imprisoned.  You believe in the rights of others to live how they want to live, because everyone deserves freedom.  And it’s everyone’s job to make sure we have it.

That’s what a bleeding heart is. It doesn’t mean you don’t believe in abusers, or criminals, or in justice for all. A bleeding heart wants to remove the obstacles put up in front of people in their pursuit of liberty. It means you think everyone deserves a chance. It means you try to empathize and to understand.  It means you go from thinking smart people are corrupt and poor people are lazy to seeing them as just another person that needs a blanket on a cold night.

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