This I Believe

Wilma - Richmond, California
Entered on August 30, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

Opa’s House



Sometimes a story comes along at exactly the right time.

I was in the throes of making a career decision – should I continue as a psychotherapist or pursue a gnawing desire to write – when a visiting Dutch uncle told me the following family story.

In September of 1944 German troops were deployed throughout the Netherlands to combat the allied forces in the south. One route had troops and tanks plowing through my grandparent’s neighborhood in Rotterdam. Surprisingly, two weeks before the deployment, a German officer warned my grandfather and his neighbors, in no uncertain terms, that tanks would soon flatten everything in their path.

A few residents fled, but most fell into disbelief and complacency. Some, like my grandfather’s next-door neighbor, were German collaborators and certain their homes would be immune. But my grandfather had no illusions about Nazi ruthlessness; he acted quickly. He and my grandmother immediately farmed out their twelve children and belongings to relatives and friends. Then my grandfather did the unthinkable: he, along with his sons and a local demolition company, tore his large, two-story brick house down to its foundation. In two weeks every shingle, brick, and board was transported by a single car and horse-drawn cart one mile to his sister’s. He was the only homeowner to act so decisively.

The Germans destroyed many homes, including the collaborators’. After the war housing supplies were scarce, but my grandfather rebuilt his house, brick by brick, board by board. In 1947 the house again stood tall. It solidly stands today.

It was moving to hear that family story, and weeks later I found myself thinking about my career dilemma from a new perspective. It was obvious I was afraid of losing my structure and security. I was competent, established, and had the respect of clients and colleagues. Like my grandfather’s complacent neighbors, I didn’t want to move either.

My grandfather’s decisiveness and courage challenged me to face my fears and hesitancy. He was willing to tear down the very thing that gave his family refuge in a war torn world. He risked scattering his family and being viewed as an extremist but didn’t hedge. He knew the stakes were high, but he was determined to save his family from greater misery.

In my career dilemma, destruction wasn’t barreling down on me, but this fact was true: ultimately death was headed my way. I could choose to pretend otherwise, or search my heart for what was important and act on my priorities. I did.

This is what I’ve come to know and believe: sometimes we have to deconstruct what we’ve built in order to save ourselves. The process isn’t easy. It strips us of our security. We risk losing face. It demands believing in a positive future even in uncertain times. It also requires that we do the hard work of rebuilding, brick by brick, a new life for ourselves. However, if we do rebuild, I truly believe the strength of our spirit will ultimately stand tall.