June 22, 2006
Finding Tools That Give Life Meaning
In the Louisiana where I grew up, the Monday ritual involved a pot of red beans simmering on the stove and a washing machine chugging in the laundry room. On one of those wash days, circa 1965, our washing machine overflowed.
Hearing noises, I ran into the washroom to find my mother banging on appliances and crying to the heavens. Bellowing a phrase from the existential literature she was reading, she shouted, "Life is absurd. Life is absurd."
"Yes," I said, as I swooped in, "but that's where you start."
Having taken the existential leap into accepting life's ambiguity has gotten me through a lot over the years, particularly this year, as the extremes of experience challenge any vestiges of hope I have held for things to have predictable outcomes. Say what you will about Katrina and cancer, they can be excellent teachers.
I think that Jews have an edge in holding what psychotherapist Marion Woodman calls "the tension of opposites." The Torah gives us the Book of Deuteronomy, where we are carefully told that good will be rewarded and bad punished. Yet Torah also gives us the Book of Job, where those who assert the Deuteronomical truth are severely chastised by God for telling falsehood. We Jews break our brains early.
The very first chapters of the Book of Genesis tell us first that the human was created on the sixth day, yet a few lines down we get an entirely different human creation story. God scoops up earth, breathes into it and hiene Adam. Wait, which is right? The sixth day or the earthling? Just rewards or Job's unfathomable universe? It's like the Certs conundrum: Is it a candy mint or a breath mint? Wait, you are both right.
Paradox heals. How else would it be possible for me to assert that my experience returning as a volunteer post-Katrina to my childhood home in the Gulf South, in the midst of an unimaginably horrible human and environmental catastrophe, was one of the most professionally fulfilling experiences I have ever had? Or to claim that this time, now, when I am struggling with cancer, chemotherapy and severe limitations to my energy and activities, has afforded me immeasurable quality time with friends and an unexpected sense of peace and well-being?
I wonder if I am delusional or in denial. I certainly wouldn't have chosen either of these trials. And while I am coping well with my current treatment, I make no assumptions about how I will manage what may be waiting for me down the line.
Still at this point, my sense is that in these challenges, there is the paradoxical embrace of both horror and beauty. Horror in the diagnosis and possible outcome, beauty in the treasure of each moment -- an awareness that is somehow focused by the terrifying knowledge of what else might be possible.
I think my comfort with paradox stems from being prematurely eldered. It happened when I was in the third grade and my grandfather lay on his deathbed.
Grandpa Brener, who had come from Bialystok to New Orleans as a young man, was a pious Jew. He traveled the South raising money for Zionist organizations. His family, which included seven children, often went wanting as he sent whatever money he could to the Jewish National Fund to buy land to build the Jewish homeland.
As he lay dying in his bedroom, his right hand paralyzed and his mouth unable to speak, I sat at his bedside and was sometimes given the honor of feeding him through his IV tube.
One day when I left my post, I wandered from his bedroom into his study. I saw a plaque attached to the wall near his Hebrew books. It said, "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand fail and my tongue cleave to my mouth." I knew that my frail and mute grandfather hadn't forgotten Jerusalem.
At that moment, I was liberated from the clutches of fundamentalism. Confronting the fact that bad things happen to good people gave me tools to make my own meaning and look beyond black and white. It gave me a facility with paradox, a big advantage in confronting a nuanced world.
The result was a tolerance for irony, paradox and absurdity. I learned that I would have to create my own answers, and that ultimately, we all must care for each other in order to save ourselves. And that the process can even be fun.
The familiar words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav comfort without sounding like Pollyanna: "All the world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is to not be afraid."
The injustice of my grandfather's suffering in light of the promise that was pinned to his wall, catapulted me into the awareness of life on the narrow bridge, where we cannot escape the fact that life is precarious and mysterious. To help others, we stand with them on bridge, offering witness, encouragement, soup and rides.
If we are to be helpful and not condescending, we should never forget that we, too, are vulnerable. And together we seek justice, courage and delight.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of "Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner's Path" (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.