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June 24, 2012

It is Forbidden to Despair

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/it_is_forbidden_to_despair_20120624/

My friend Marty Kaplan writes frequently for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and Huffington Post on media, politics and public policy – and his articles often shine a bright light on ill-fated trends, such as money in politics and its impact on our political system, democracy and the world. The most recent article he titled “The End is Nigh. Seriously.” which he published in both The Jewish Journal and Huffington Post

In response, I wrote to Marty the following:

“I too deal with the dark underbelly of life at the micro level, mostly regarding sadness in people’s lives, as you do on the macro level. My question to you is this: How do you get up in the morning? I have the same question frequently. For me, what keeps me hopeful and balanced are my wife, children, the spirituality that comes through our religious texts, and good people I love like you. What is it for you?”

He responded this way (I share it with his permission):

One of the comments on the Moyers interview [Marty was interviewed at length recently by Bill Moyers on his public television show – see here] that I got most frequently was: “How can you understand all these terrible true things, and still keep smiling?”’

I suppose Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s injunction against despair should be enough to keep me going, but it’s not. My comforts are like yours: my kids, friends, radical amazement*. It’s not the fate of the world that darkens me; it’s the brokenness of the human condition. 

Sometimes I try to take refuge in the Buddha’s insight: “Life is suffering.” But I can’t quite achieve the non-attachment—the renunciation of desire—that that kind of enlightenment requires.

All of which brings the absurdism of Samuel Beckett to mind: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” That’s me, in 11 words.

I wrote back:

“The exact quote from Rebbe Nachmen is Lo tit’ya-esh - Assur l’hit’ya-esh – ‘It is forbidden to despair. He also said, ‘Remember: Things can go from the very worst to the very best…in just the blink of an eye.’”

It is told that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, among the 20th century’s greatest religious thinkers and teachers, once entered his class of rabbinic students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and very excitedly proclaimed – “I saw a miracle this morning! I saw a miracle this morning!”

“Rabbi,” his students asked, “What was the miracle?”

“The sun came up!”

Perhaps overcoming despair each day is as simple as this - that beyond our stupidity, cruelty and insensitivity there is still enough wonder in every moment to lift the heart.


*Marty referred to “radical amazement” in his response to me.  Rabbi Heschel wrote about this at some length, as follows:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person’s attitude toward history and nature…Such a one knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; [and] is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate one’s sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).

Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of humankind. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.

The grandeur or mystery of being is not a particular puzzle to the mind, as, for example, the cause of volcanic eruptions. We do not have to go to the end of reasoning to encounter it. Grandeur or mystery is something with which we are confronted everywhere and at all times. Even the very act of thinking baffles our thinking, just as every intelligible fact is, by virtue of its being a fact, drunk with baffling aloofness. Does not mystery reign within reasoning, within perception, within explanation? What formula could explain and solve the enigma of the very fact of thinking?

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