Discover more from The Expression of Life
of loss and other facts of life
Consider for a moment the sources of your mental anguish.
How much comes from direct physical pain and immediate emotional injury, and how much comes from your own struggles with accepting your reality?
If you’re not sure what “struggling with accepting your reality” looks like, let me give you some other helpful words and phrases to see if you can relate:
Tossing and turning
Wishing things would be different
Asking “why me?!” without genuinely caring to know its answer.
Unless you are a seasoned Buddhist monk, a veteran Stoic, or have had a major lobotomy, you can probably relate quite easily to most of these challenges. Most of us burn immense amounts of energy spinning our wheels about predicaments that only improve when we eventually (after a lot of stress) come to accept them.
This is why I believe it’s worthwhile to give some thought to what our minds are doing, and what we can do to diminish this pain and frustration.
The first thing to recognize is how opaque the reality-fighting state of mind is.
In rejecting what is happening to us, we are de facto closed to the messages that the One behind reality is sending us.
Just to give a trivial but common example: if you miss a train (which I’ve done many many times), you can huff and puff, curse and scream at city transit employees, and fume at yourself or at your traveling partner for taking too long to get ready.
None of these behaviors will help you think of a solution, and none of them will help you use your newfound free time in the train station wisely.
Only when you accept your fate — or rather, your present moment — can your heart and mind open up to the possibilities around you .
Naturally, the issue of lack of acceptance is most poignant when it comes to facing death and loss.
When my mother passed away, I was in a deep, silent denial for no less than 24 hours. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t say a word to my dear friend who drove me to Ben Gurion airport to fly home.
My mom’s funeral helped me formally accept that she was gone, but I couldn’t bring myself to erase her phone number from my “Favorites” for a year, and probably reached for my phone to call her a dozen or more times after she had passed away.
Probably more significantly: not long after her shiva, I, and I think my father and siblings as well, regularly slipped into anger, remorse, guilt and self-loathing.
These ego-rich emotions are more tangible than the deep, blunt vacuum that is the feeling of utter loss.
Anger and guilt offered us a deluded sense of control when we felt most out-of-control. We would obsess over what we “could have done,” and what we “should have done.” What the doctors should have noticed, and what they should have recommended.
There’s a long list of all the tricks our minds play to avoid accepting the sometimes grim reality in front of us.
Acceptance, however, is a completely egoless activity. In fact, it isn’t an activity at all. It is precisely an inactivity.
Acceptance is allowing reality to prevail over us.
This is in contrast to our usual instinct to prevent or transform the reality that is presenting itself to us.
Death is the most elusive fact of life. We know it will happen but pretend like it won’t. It is the elephant in the room that we avoid making eye contact with.
It isn’t a coincidence that death is the primary source of spiritual impurity in Jewish law (tumah-טומאה). Our associations with the English word “impurity” cause us to misconstrue tumah as a sort of uncleanliness, however, even a bit of study of tumah as a halachic phenomenon reveals it to be nothing of the sort.
Close contact with a dead body renders a person "tamei," as surely as when we mentally and emotionally confront death we come to intellectual "error message" — a mental and emotional block.
When we ask why a loved one’s life was cut short, or why we must suffer loss at all — when we stand at the edge of a mass grave in an eerily quiet Polish forest feebly trying to comprehend incomprehensible atrocities — in the wake of these failed attempts to understand death, we are left feeling the chill of death of ourselves.
We feel nothing.
And therefore feel disconnected.
From ourselves. From others. From God.
How does one rectify the problem of tumah?
One needs water mixed with the ash of fully red cow, the famed parah adumah — the epitome of a "chok-חק," a law whose deep reasoning we cannot fathom.
Aside from the fact that the ash of a dead cow is used to revert a problem caused by death in the first place, it poses other mysteries as well. For example, everyone involved in the production of this ash becomes impure in the process, but the one who sprinkles the ash remains pure, and the one sprinkled on, of course, goes from being impure to pure.
If you think about it, though, it makes sense that it doesn't make sense.
We live with the illusion of control. By the time we are established adults, we have most things neatly organized into our little mental boxes.
No one actually denies that this is a fallacy. Obviously, we’re very much not in control of most things. Most notably: death and loss. Even the richest, most powerful oligarch with connections in the highest of places cannot pull strings to get himself exempt from death.
The thing which purifies the mystery of death and all the painful things we can't wrap our minds around is accepting their existence and their inherent mystery. This is the idea behind having the water of the red cow sprinkled upon us. Acceptance of the the mystery allows us to live with it. On the other hand, trying to grasp what we are not yet equipped to grasp spiritually blocks us from life.
We have trouble grasping what death is because we hardly understand life. The truly wise know the limitations of their own minds, and accept that the scope of their vision is only a thin slice of reality. This is ironically what allows them to always keep questioning and learning, and absorbing the lessons life's pains and challenges with grace and humility.
May we be sprinkled with those waters and accept all of life — what we understand, and what we may never grasp. And may this very acceptance open us up to experience so much more of life than we were when we were trying to squeeze it all into our limited mental boxes.
Inspired by a dvar Torah I heard by Rabbi Hadar Margolin that left an imprint on me one Shabbat night in 2011, and an epic lecture by my rebbi Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein which can be accessed in a condensed form here.
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