Most of you know that during the day, I work in a school for children with special needs. I’ve always felt that being around these kids has given me a good perspective on things. There is something very humbling about working around a group of children who’s lives are filled with struggle. For some of them, even taking a step or enunciating a word is a huge accomplishment.
Given the fact that I see these children struggle every day, I am less inclined to complain when something doesn’t go my way. How can I complain about a parking spot on the far side of the lot when I walk into my office and see a child with no legs? How can I be so insensitive as to complain about the price of gasoline when the children I see every day will never be able to drive on their own? Instead, they will be driven around in the back of a minivan while securely strapped into their wheelchair. How can I be the slightest bit impatient with my own children when they demand more of my time to tell me yet another story when there are children I see every day who will never be able to tell their mother how much they love her. How can I even, for a moment, think of the endless tasks I need to attend to when my child simply wants to talk to me?
We can only truly appreciate what we have when we see others who have less.
This past weekend, I was given, perhaps, the greatest dose of perspective anyone could ever receive: I went to see the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Visiting this museum has been on my bucket list since I first saw Schindler’s list many years ago. Since that time, I have read pretty much everything I could find regarding the holocaust. I have seen the movies, the documentaries, and I have been to Temple to hear survivors speak about their experiences.
Despite having done all this research and thinking I knew all there was to know about this horrific time in history, I was immobilized when I stood on the top floor of the museum and stared at a uniform worn by one of the prisoners.
It. Blew. Me. Away.
The artifacts were overwhelming, the pictures were horrifying, and the video footage was unbelievable. There is actually one part of the museum where you sit and watch a large television screen. On it, is a continuous feed of survivors telling their stories.
I’m not ashamed to tell you I shed more than a few tears.
One survivor told of being on one of the “death marches.” When Nazi Germany realized they were losing the war, concentration camp prisoners were marched for weeks and months in the snow, with very little rest and scarcely any food. This particular survivor marched for four months in the freezing cold. If you fell behind or couldn’t keep up, you were shot and left for dead on the side of the road. She actually saw women breaking off their toes due to frostbite.
Yet another survivor told of hiding from a Nazi officer with two women and their infants. He was fourteen at the time. One mother, desperate to quiet her child, held him so close to her chest that she suffocated him. Forty years later, this man on the screen in front of me broke down.
I think that’s what gets me the most. When these tapes were recorded, the holocaust had been forty or fifty years prior. Even with that amount of time passing, these people still broke down and wept openly as though the wound had never been allowed to heal.
And perhaps it hadn’t.
I can’t think of a single thing in my life that makes me cry after a year, let alone fifty.
The stuff I saw at that museum? It stayed with me. Even as I drove home, I found myself thinking about all that I had seen and heard. And now? It makes any discomfort, inconvenience, or minor suffering I experience seem trivial compared to the horrors those people had to ensure.
Will I go back to complaining about the price of gasoline? How much weight I’ve gained? Or how mad I am that someone cut me off in traffic? Sure. Will I return to sighing when my daughter tells me the same story she’s told me a hundred times before? You bet. Will I swear under my breath when I don’t make the yellow light on my way to work in the morning, because now I’m going to be all of three minutes late? Absolutely.
But not today. Today I will be thankful for every single thing I have.
Donna Small is the author of Just Between Friends, A Ripple in the Water, and Through Rose Colored Glasses. She lives in Clemmons, North Carolina where she is currently working on her next novel.