A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

Tag: Fear

A Heart to Understand

Here’s something that happened to me this week:

The mom of a kid on Elly’s baseball team told me my ex wife saved her life.

“Your wife,” she said, “Is amazing.”
“Ex wife,” I said, “But she can still be amazing.”
“Whoever she is. She saved my life.”

I expected that she’d tell me about how Elly’s mom had stepped in at the last minute and picked up her kid when she had to work late, or brought snacks to school when she couldn’t, or gave her a ride when her car was in the shop. The things we talk about when we say someone saved our lives. When someone is a real lifesaver.

“She saved my life,” she repeated and just looked me in the eye. Hers were almost teary. Almost. Mostly they were shining. And I got it. I hugged her. I’m not entirely sure why. It was the right thing to do, I guess.

“Next week is my last treatment, but the cancer is already completely gone” she said.

K (Elly’s mom) is an oncologist. But I don’t think it was the drugs she administered that made her a lifesaver to Elly’s teammate’s mom.

I think it was Colorado.

I don’t know if she still does this, but she used to go to Colorado for every year for three or four days of training on doctor-patient communication for oncologists. It’s really a retreat. Spiritual guidance for cancer doctors. A yearly reminder that we are all human beings and that being human is hard.

Doctors aren’t usually taught that. That’s why I don’t usually like to see doctors. It’s why I don’t particularly care for Western medicine. Acupuncturists, for instance, are taught to start from the fact that we are all human beings, all part of something much bigger, and that being human is hard. That’s how it works, I think. By starting with love.

I could write forever about that, but I’m not going to.

I’m convinced that K saved this woman’s life, not because of the chemicals she used to treat her, but because she learned how to talk to her. How to see her as a human being. Otherwise, she could have treated the cancer, put it into remission, gotten her back to normal daily activities. Given her back a normal life. But she couldn’t have saved it.

Because the real thing K learned in Colorado is that doctors are also human and, even if they can’t allow themselves to completely fall apart in the face of illness and death, they are allowed to be affected by it. They are allowed to be a little vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is important.

You know, I think, without question, and I can tell you as a researcher with 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability.
—Brené Brown (Interview from On Being with Krista Tippet)

I hate being vulnerable. Really hate it. I will do almost anything to avoid it. But it still comes up. All the time. I have to be vulnerable sometimes. And it’s a gamble because there are two ways we can react to vulnerability.

We can react to it with violence, or we can react to it with vulnerability.

Reacting to vulnerability with violence always comes from fear. From pachad. The fear I wrote about last time. The fear of phantoms. Of illusions we create in our minds. It’s a reaction that comes from a profound sense of shame. Of victimhood.

Self-described victims are extremely dangerous. They feel justified in anything they do because of that illusion of victimhood, and so they victimize others. It’s all in their heads. They are all in their heads.

When we meet vulnerability with vulnerability, we heal each other. We experience yir’ah—the fear and awe that is Love. And we share that Love. Because there’s nothing else we can do with it. And it’s not easy.

Being a victim is much easier because it means we never really have to grow up. Never have to face the parts of us we may not like. Never take responsibility.
But it also makes us destructive. So destructive.

This week we read Ki Tavo (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 26:1-29:8). At the end of the parshah Moshe is reminding the Israelites that they have seen the great things God did for them, the signs and wonders. Then he says this:

.וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
But up until now Y-H-V-H hasn’t given you a heart to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear.

Until now, the Moment–What Is, hasn’t given you the heart to really get it.

When we live in our heads, we are victims, we are ashamed, and we see ourselves as worthless piles of shit. The Israelites were victims up until that moment. Victims who didn’t have to grow up. Victims who lived in their heads. Creating, over and over again, a mental image that they could cling to: their own sense of entitled victimhood. Victimhood that justifies violence in the face of vulnerability. That’s what victims do.

But when we are vulnerable, when we meet the vulnerability of other people with our own vulnerability, we move into our hearts. In our hearts, we understand. We experience the Love that exists in the Moment. In everything, everywhere, always. We become a part of it. And we heal each other through it.

Elul is half over. We are halfway through our  heshbon hanefesh, our deep reflection on our life for the year. Are we victims who hurt other people, or are we vulnerable so that we can heal them?

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I just want to say, before I say anything else, that the first draft of this was written as a text message to someone. If my writing seems even stranger than usual, you should blame her. I know I do. I’m sort of grateful for that.

Anyway. The title for this blog comes from a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד והעקר לא לפחד כלל
The entire world is a very narrow bridge and the essential thing is not to be afraid at all.

Except for when we should. Because sometimes fear is the right thing to feel.

Rebbe Nachman actually knew this.

I mean, he wasn’t lying when he said we shouldn’t be afraid. It’s just that he was talking about something else altogether.

He taught that there were two kinds of fear. One of them is pachad, and one of them is yir’ah.

Pachad is the one we don’t need.

It’s illusory fear. Fear of of the world created by our mental constructs—from our misconception of separateness. If we believe we are separate, we believe we can lose or win, or that we can have our heart broken, or suffer humiliation, or generally end up in a really shitty place.

And, usually, that’s what happens when we cling to this kind of fearful view of the world.

Rabbi Alan Lew, teaching in Rebbe Nachman’s name, calls it “… the fear of the phantom, the fear whose object is imagined.”

It’s this sort of fear of illusion that leads us to a sense that we are right and they are wrong. The sort of worldview that makes us believe that some lives are worth more than other lives. That sort of thing.

Frankly, it makes the world a shittier place because it’s very difficult to find compassion when we get so wrapped up in fear. Nachman, like so many other spiritual teachers, didn’t want that for us.

Then there’s the other kind of fear, yir’ah: That’s just love.

Seriously.

It’s the fear that’s associated with connection. The overwhelming feeling that comes with access to the incredibly powerful Love that is the basis of…well… everything.

Here’s what Rabbi Lew said about it:

“It is the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.”

That’s Love, right?

But it’s still scary as hell because it involves having to shed a sense of who we think we are and what we think we deserve. Yir’ah wants to open us up to the truth about Love. It’s everywhere. All the time. It’s overwhelming and huge and really hard to appreciate and understand.

But it’s also very present between us and the people we love. When we see (or feel the presence of ) a person, or a dog—or whatever we love, we realize that the love we are feeling is coming from them as much as it’s coming from us.

We are reflecting back the love in them, and they are reflecting back the love in us. And it’s actually that huge, overwhelming, inconceivable Love. In that moment, that look, that feeling, we are just focusing that Love and bouncing it back and forth to each other.

That’s what happens when an interaction with someone becomes the whole of the Universe for a moment. We allow ourself to open up to that Love. Love, the Universe, God—you can call it what you want. Whatever we call it, we are completely open to it for that moment.

And that’s really terrifying.

And it’s supposed to be.

 

What are you waiting for?

“What are you waiting for, Tisha B’Ab?”

My dad loves that expression. As I think about it, I’ve never heard anyone else say it. Maybe he got it from my grandfather. I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure he’s ever really considered the deep meaning of Tisha B’Av. That’s fine—it’s not his thing.

For better or for worse, it’s my thing. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this less than three hours before I have to be at the synagogue to listen to the book of Eicha being read and to begin my long fast. What I really should be doing is eating a light meal and drinking a lot of water. This is going to be a quick one—there will be typos.

I talked about Tisha B’Av last year, so I’m only going to recap:

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av) is a day of mourning and a fast day commemorating a series of tragedies that have struck the Jewish people throughout our history.

I don’t want to minimize tragedy. I am not going to minimize tragedy. I would never say this to someone who is in the midst of experiencing something tragic.

But.

I’ve been thinking about tragedy and I’ve come to the conclusion that what tragedy is (not what it means—it doesn’t help to search for the meaning in tragedy): A radical shift in the nature of the moment.

A loved one is here and then they are gone. Buildings stood, now they are rubble. There was hope and belief and a sense of order, now there is despair, doubt, and chaos.

It appears that way from the middle.

But from further down the road it’s different.

Babylon gave us Jeremiah, and one of the most beautiful phrases in the Tanakh: Kol sasson, v’kol simhah, kol, hatan, v’kol kalah. (The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.) We sing it at weddings, filled with hope and love. And it goes on. From the ruins of Jerusalem we went to Yavne and created the Mishnah and began to focus on prayer. In our expulsion from Spain, we traveled to Turkey and Morocco and composed unimaginably beautiful music.

Things don’t go according to plan. Life is not what we imagined it would be and it feels like everything’s flying off the rails. At least from the middle. We feel no control because the reality of the moment has radically changed.  This is where we are.

And, frankly, it sucks.

Tisha B’Av is important. We should weep and mourn. We should look at ourselves and the hatred we nourish despite the fact that this hatred kills us. We should remember what it feels like to be in that place where everything has changed in an instant and we are lost.

We should recognize that we can’t always control what happens. And this is where we live.  If we accept this, we will see God in that moment. And hear the Voice of Joy, unlikely as it seems.

“What are you waiting for, Tisha B’Ab?” my dad asks.

What are you waiting for? A radical change?

“It may not happen, or it may happen in a way you never imagined,” he seems to be saying.

“There is nothing to wait for; this is where we live,” I reply.