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Suffering an education

Moving minds, changing perception, provoking thought—these mantras have been my credo as an aspiring writer. Yet the last two weeks have demonstrated that a string of alphanumeric characters invokes a unique meaning for each reader, well beyond my control. Evidence and logic are matters of the mind; they mean little to the heart. I resort, instead, to my experience, which is all I have ever known.

Ciudad del Este, PARAGUAY: A semester of transnational study in South America leads me to an indigenous village, remote from Paraguay’s capital and economic center in Asunción. Of course, the locals are still trying to make a buck off naïve estadounidenses, so as I open my wallet to pay for a sample of home-brewed Paraguayan moonshine, I catch a glimpse of the different bills I’ve collected on my recent excursions: Argentinean and Uruguayan pesos, Brazilian reales and Paraguayan guaranies. The inks span the gamut of colors—purples, blues, oranges, reds—and some money even boasts artwork and battle scenes. In this moment I can’t help but think to myself, for the first time, how it is the U.S. dollar that looks weird, and not this foreign currency I once considered fit for Monopoly. Maybe my country isn’t the normal one, after all.

Physics Building, SCIENCE DRIVE: I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. The three-dimensional space in which we live makes sense—in fact, I’m pretty good at doodling those cool little cubes we all sketch in boredom, out of two overlapping squares and four straight lines. I can visualize arrows rotating and morphing in this familiar world. But quantum mechanics requires something radically different—an abstract generalization of these arrows to infinite dimensions, and my mind can’t keep up with what mathematicians insist is correct. I become lost, unable to comprehend what I cannot see. Empathizing with this confusion, my professor urges me to believe in infiniteness—what he knows to be true—and trust the underlying mathematical structure of the universe. Only then, he promises, will I begin to understand its secrets.

A similar situation has emerged in my column. Two weeks ago, I had an idea. I wrote about the idea, in order to spark conversation. Some people disagreed with my words, and others agreed. Some thought my words should have been presented differently, and others thought they shouldn’t have been presented at all. Like in any conflict, my emotions have progressed through stages.


I feel misunderstood by critics:

“You sicken me to the core, but I am not angry with your anti-Semitic trash. People like me will do anything to prevent people like you from getting a job anywhere, you Nazi scum.”

I don’t understand why we can’t discuss these issues, or how we could. I see some great injustice in our incapacity to consider ideas we find abhorrent.


Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill

Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.

A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.

He was ordered to change places with the Jews. *

A Jewish friend helps me understand:

“I didn’t suffer. I don’t suffer. My grandmother and grandfather suffered. Please don’t invalidate their experiences.”

And a hateful e-mail provokes deep concern:

“Jews are out to control the world, Philip. Don’t believe those who try to deny this fact. I am glad that you have supported the white supremacist’s right to speak!”

Intentions cannot always be discerned through the mask of language. I wanted to start a dialogue about human suffering, but instead I ripped open old wounds, to fuel the very anti-Semitism that caused them. For this, I am deeply sorry. It is my failure as a columnist, and as a student. Our failure as a community is the dishearteningly narrow space we reserve for transformative conversation.


More vitriol to my in-box:

“I’m sure your life is becoming hell right now, so let me just say you deserve every bit of it.”

I feel deeply inadequate. Now, more than ever, I just want to listen. I am at a loss for words.


A Jewish leader on campus, now my friend, reaches out to me:

“Come sit down, peacefully. Let us discuss our feelings, and learn something.”

What if we live with a consciousness so shrouded in anti-Semitism that it is impossible to see through it? The Holocaust was the latest chapter in a 2,000-year saga of oppression, from the destruction of the second temple through the Spanish Inquisition.

What do I risk in being wrong? In error, in miscalculation, lie the seeds of possibility and the roots of education.


“I never knew your experience. Why would you wish me to suffer as you have suffered?”

Human beings are tribal creatures; we seek groups, or we are placed in them. Perhaps it is inevitable that some groups suffer. We cannot quantify this suffering, and we believe as fundamental the truth that no suffering is worse than another. But we are impoverished if we assume all suffering is the same.

I’ve learned a lot in the past two weeks about suffering and about relationships. As a human being, I am broken. Black people are broken. Jewish people are broken. America is broken because we know not the appropriate words to discuss our differences.

Am I an anti-Semite? A champion of free speech? A victim? A fool? I cannot see or be seen behind the mask of anger, and as the tears stream down I reach out, offering my hand in support to the Jewish community as I taste the salt of pride, hoping that one day it will fade through our mutual understanding.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours

Which grew to be years, and every day came mute

Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,

And settled upon his eyes in a black soot. *

Our education is hard, and ever incomplete. Yet we have no choice but to suffer through it, or remain alone, isolated in our ignorance.

*Anthony Hecht: “More Light! More Light!”


Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior.


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