Today is a busy day here, and a big one, as we’re all heading to Temple University’s graduation ceremony to watch and cheer as older daughter receives her degrees, summa cum laude. Pretty cool. The speaker will be Dick Vermeil, so it’s going to be an extremely Philly kind of day.
So while I go to celebrate with a young history major, let me leave you with a portrait of living history. Please reward yourselves by enjoying this 60 Minutes profile of 97-year-old Ben Ferencz: “What the Last Nuremberg Prosecutor Wants the World to Know.”
His story and his history give his words a greater weight, so you should read or watch the whole thing and encounter these words again in that full context, but let me excerpt this bit here:
This is from a man who, in his 20s, helped to liberate concentration camps in Nazi Germany, where his role was to collect evidence for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is from a man who has seen the very worst of humanity and the very worst of inhumanity, injustice, and cruelty.
Benjamin Ferencz: People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.
Lesley Stahl: Did anybody ever say that you’re naive?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of course. Some people say I’m crazy.
Lesley Stahl: Are you naive here?
Benjamin Ferencz: Well, if it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system. I am naive? That’s insane.
… Lesley Stahl: You are such an idealist.
Benjamin Ferencz: I don’t think I’m an idealist. I’m a realist. And I see the progress. The progress has been remarkable. Look at the emancipation of woman in my lifetime. … Look what’s happened to the same-sex marriages. To tell somebody a man can become a woman, a woman can become a man, and a man can marry a man, they would have said, “You’re crazy.” But it’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t — you know — be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.
Lesley Stahl: Ben—
Benjamin Ferencz: We’re on a roll.
Lesley Stahl: I can’t—
Benjamin Ferencz: We’re marching forward.
But let me highlight another bit from this profile, a glimpse into what it is that fuels Ferencz’s hope and determination, and what it is that keeps him going even now, at 97 years old. Stahl asks him what he was feeling as he prosecuted the mass-murderers of the SS at Nuremberg:
Lesley Stahl: What was going on inside of you?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of me?
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Benjamin Ferencz: I’m still churning.
Lesley Stahl: To this minute?
Benjamin Ferencz: I’m still churning.
Benjamin Ferencz became enraged more than 70 years ago and he’s still furious. He has been angry every minute of every day for more than seven decades. And that is part of why he is, as Stahl describes him, the “sunniest,” most cheerful and optimistic person she’s ever met.
That may seem confusing or contradictory, because this is not how we’re often told to think of anger. Anger, we’re told, will eat you alive. It will leave you bitter, unsatisfied, unhappy. And that can all be true — depending on what it is that you are angry about, and why. But if, like Benjamin Ferencz, you get angry and stay angry at the right things — angry at injustice, and cruelty, and inhumanity, angry at systems that treat people monstrously and that turn people into monsters, angry on behalf of others — then that anger will keep you churning. It will still make you unsatisfied, but that will be a righteous discontent, which can provide a sense of meaning and thus of happiness that mere complacency could never afford.
Also, as Mr. Nancy put it recently on American Gods, anger gets stuff done. Or, more prettily, as St. Augustine is said to have said: Hope has two daughters, anger and courage. And they are both beautiful.