What Elie Wiesel Taught Me About Moral Indifference

This past Saturday, we lost one of our better angels. 

For years I have pulled from the wisdom of Elie Wiesel when speaking about the children and families who are brought into my clinic every day. While an accurate witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust, his life’s message transcended this horrific event and was put forth to teach and challenge everyone with courage and conscience to avoid moral indifference.

Wiesel knew all to well the dangers of moral indifference; this concept that we can know that something is terribly wrong yet we say or do nothing—or the idea of cheap grace, in which we count on someone else to take care of these problems. He makes a great case that the suffering of others is always our business as well as our problem to solve, and challenges us to prevent the unjust treatment or the abandonment of those who are without power or position. 

“Indifference is not the beginning; it is the end. Therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the oppressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.” -Elie Wiesel

From where I sit there are thousands of victims of abuse and neglect who are abandoned each year by those charged with their safety and welfare. I am particularly concerned about the children, broken by parents or guardians, who have turned to us to find hope and a sense of the future. When we become indifferent to their plight and turn our backs on our collective responsibility, we all but assure that these children grow into adolescence and adulthood knowing absolutely that we do not care about them. This is why my staff and I make it our mission to never allow any child within our reach to ever fall through the cracks of society; to always ensure that those suffering never become invisible.

Four years ago, VIP made history when we opened up a center so that DCFS could provide the basic care and support that every newly detained child should expect, including medical and mental health services, fresh clean clothes, warm meals, a real bed to sleep in, and loving caretakers to make sure they felt safe. This unique program was created to provide children with a place where they knew for certain that they were not invisible or forgotten. Sadly, the space for the older children became a dumping ground for the most difficult cases that DCFS have all but given up hope on, many of whom have been cycling in and out of foster care for years and are now invisible to the system. When DCFS lost control and the LA Times wrote a story, the state came in and now everything is closed.

Now these children are becoming invisible once again. Is someone paying attention to their health, their future, their sadness?  Are they getting the care that they so desperately need? Are we preventing the creation of more and more youth who clearly are becoming this city’s future homeless?

In Los Angeles, VIP is in a unique position to stand up and be heard, changing the direction for these children. And yet there is a sense that we should not stand up because it is unpopular and might create problems for those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping these children safe. This is my dilemma; I can be morally indifferent and trust that those in power will provide the necessary change to protect these children, or I can step up and do the hard thing and speak words that cannot be spoken by those who are without power or advocates.

Elie Wiesel was always charging us to never ignore our better angels and to always speak up and take action when we witness the suffering of others. This compassion, he taught us, starts with a single human being caring for another. With so many foster teens in crisis in Los Angeles, what better time than now for us to step up and change their present course, giving hope to those who need it most?  

I will always try to answer his call to avoid moral indifference. Together we can honor his memory and continue his legacy so that future generations can build upon a foundation of compassion and common humanity.

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