On the return drive from taking Nathan to the airport (for a trip related to the mysterious possibilities that I am still not talking about) I listened to NPR shows that he had downloaded for the drive. As usual, I laughed, I got frustrated and I cried.
But this time the tears came from a hurt deep inside.
It all started with This American Life as I tuned into Alison Silverman’s report on the 1950′s television show This Is Your Life. I know that I watched reruns of that show as a child, or at least saw clips. I vaguely recall creating our own versions of the show when we decided to create our own radio/television shows. Somewhere in the collection of memorabilia at my parents house lies an old orange-labeled cassette tape containing a radio show filled with childish lisps, lame jokes, bad accents, sound effects and giggles. If I had the power, I would share a clip with you here.
But this isn’t about those childhood memories. This is about my focus on sharing stories. Silverman’s report brought to life the dual sided gift of sharing someone’s life story in a public venue. The first story to make me sob was that of a Holocaust survivor, Hanna Bloch Kohner. Her initial reaction to the words, “This is Your Life Hanna Bloch Kohner!” was a somewhat agonized (or at least it sounded that way to me) “Oh, no.” During the half hour show, she was reunited with a fellow survivor who moved from camp to camp with her and was reminded of the death of her parents and her husband. She had to talk about her 7 years of horror, including being handed a bar of soap and not knowing whether the shower she entered would be one of water or of gas.
That story over, I thought my tears would diminish. But no, next Silverman shares another This is Your Life about a Japanese man who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and was travelling around the United States to raise money for reconstructive surgery for some young female survivors. He meets his past in as dramatic a way as possible; they brought the co-pilot of the Enola Gay on to shake his hand.
“How could they be so cruel?” I said out loud through my tears (appreciating the fact that I was alone in the car). I thought it was cruelty to both men; one who had to confront the enemy who destroyed his city with a bomb, and one who had to confront the reality of what that bomb did to human beings.
Why would we find entertainment in reminding people of true evil or about the most horrific times of their lives? I thought to myself. Why are so many people fascinated by “reality” television?
As I worked my way through my tears and the agony of my thoughts, I began to glimpse the answer in Silverman’s words:
Even in its heyday, ThisisYourLife raised hackles. Time magazine called Ralph Edwards a spiritual prosecutor to his guests. And Jack Gould at the New York Timesaccused the show and others like it of exploiting the raw and private emotions of the unfortunate. But the unfortunate, they liked it. ThisisYourLife might have exploited your story, but it also told you your story, gave it to you, and once you had it you could do whatever you wanted with it.
Hanna’s daughter, Julie Kohner, told me that her mother spent the year after the show traveling around the country with a copy of her episode raising money for United Jewish Appeal. On Passover, the Kohner family would play it on the gift projector they got on ThisisYourLife. Years later, Hanna and her husband, Walter, even published a joint autobiography, HannaandWalter:a Love Story.
And as brutal as his episode seems today, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto had fond memories of his appearance. His daughter, Koko Kondo, who was on the telecast as a 10-year-old told me when English speaking guests would visit, Tanimoto would play them the episode on his gift projector. He wasn’t horrified by meeting Captain Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. In fact, the two of them started writing each other after the show. And Koko Kondo says Captain Lewis changed her whole attitude about the old enemy. Seeing him tear up on stage at the El Capitan, she stopped hating American soldiers. (Silverman)
You see, it all comes back to the importance of STORY. When we share stories of horror, of sadness, and of pain, it allows us to heal. When we share stories full of laughter and joy, it allows us to celebrate. Through our stories, even through the ridiculousness of reality television, we come one step closer to recognizing the things that bind us together as humans.
For the truth is, the only thing we have completely in common is that we all have a story.
There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.