You’ve gotta love the German language. English may have the largest vocabulary with nearly a million words. French may be the language of love and diplomacy. Brazilian Portuguese may be as suave as a bossa nova. But only German has such exactness and refinement that it has given birth to the lyric poetry of Goethe and the theories of Einstein. Not to mention automotive engineering and coffee maker design.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung: let’s break it down. Vergangen means the past, with heits intensifying the meaning, so that you end up with something like “pastness.” Bewältigung means coping or managing. Taken together, the word means coming to terms with the past. It is often associated with Germany’s attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust and then, later, Communist rule. But it also can be applied in a broader sense, which is what I have in mind.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on and coming to terms with my past. It’s one of my charms. In this instance, the past I am coming to terms with is my senior prom in May, 1974.
It went this way. I attended two high schools, one in New York for my freshman and sophomore years and a second in New Jersey for my junior and the first half of my senior years. In the second half of my senior year, I returned to my original high school in New York and graduated from there. That may not seem like a big deal, but I remember feeling as if I had been on a trip to Jupiter and back. I felt awkward, displaced, alien.
Enter Homeroom. I am not sure what Homeroom really is or its purpose. They may not even have it anymore. But in 1974 I was in Homeroom with an assigned partner, a girl, with whom I also shared a few classes. We sat next to each other. She was shy but friendly. I was funny. She giggled. I put on my father’s Old Spice. She asked me to the prom. I said no.
I was afraid, despite the aftershave and flirting. The girl was not in my group of friends and I was not in hers. Beyond each other, we knew no one else in our respective peer groups. I did not have the presence of mind or courage to break through that. I like to think that has changed in my adult years, courage being the mean between cowardice and rashness. There was also someone else, a girl I had sat next to years earlier, although she already had a date.
As ridiculous as it may sound, not going to the senior prom has been one of my regrets in life. It may not sound like much, but that rejection was the first of several decisions in my life that were just plain wrong. It was wrong for everyone. Over the years, I have even thought of the girl’s father, who may have wanted to wring my neck. I wouldn’t have blamed him. As the father of three girls, I know what that anxiety is like.
Without creating a new Seinfeld episode, I’ve thought about reconnecting with this girl. Recently, I have discovered that she lives in New York and has the same last name. Email would be safe. Then again, she’s liable to think I am insane. I doubt she feels the need to have this resolved. Besides, what is the “this” that needs resolution? My guilt? Getting in touch with her after all these years to make amends and then withdrawing as quietly as before would be the moral equivalent of splashing Old Spice on again.
Still, can it be that Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an individual act involving only my conscience and no one else’s? Shouldn’t it also include an outward act with others for the benefit of all? What is the point of acting like the protagonist of The Sorrows of Young Werther if my ego is the only thing that benefits? I suppose this is what the Germans are grappling with now.
This is about more than just a white sport coat, bestimmt.