The Gift of Pain

Tisha B’av (Fast of the Ninth of the Month of Av), 2013 was the day I started this blog. I remember it. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, bawling, writing what would become my first post on this blog, the words swimming in an out of focus through the tears. I had a lot to mourn for last year. I was just coming to terms with some things about my past that I’d recently discovered, my best friend, the person I love most in this world, was raped on her birthday, and, overall, the enormity of suffering in this world was just hitting me particularly hard. I was almost looking forward to Tisha B’av last year; I was looking forward to the crying, the catharsis. I was looking forward to screaming at God for the evil allowed in this world. The words of Eicha (Lamentations) still felt fresh on my lips:

The Lord has become like an enemy; He has destroyed Israel; He has destroyed all its palaces, laid in ruins its strongholds, and He increased in the daughter of Judah, pain and wailing.

I was exposed to suffering I’d never experienced up close before. I’d read about how people suffer, but I’d never seen it firsthand. I’d never actually heard someone say the words “I was raped last night” before. I’d never felt the rage, the all-consuming bloodlust, the powerlessness, the simultaneous desire to hold the person I love most close while we both watch the world burn for its crimes. I’d never seen the effects of domestic violence, the terror and confusion in the eyes of a wife at once petrified but still protective of her husband. I’d never been the person to whom other people turned when life violently flung them out of their element. It was all new to me. So raw. So abhorrent and aberrant. It was so far outside of the standard deviation of my life, and it needed to go somewhere. Tisha B’av couldn’t come too soon last year.

When I was finished writing, I knew I had written something special—something that should be shared. It felt like an opportunity for a new beginning, to do something that could actually make a difference.

It’s a year later, and I’m sorry to say that it’s no longer raw, no longer unusual—it no longer has that effect on me. These issues are common, almost foregone conclusions. While hearing people’s stories of abuse and hardship used to throw me for hours, sometimes days, rendering me incapable of functioning properly, it has become, in this past year, just another day in the life. I used to cry when I heard about terrorist attacks in Israel; now I keep scrolling down my news feed and laugh at something funny from 9gag. Every once in a while something comes along which arrests my attention and violently awakens my empathy, but those instances are becoming fewer and farther between.

Last year I wrote that I was mourning for the conscience that died in those who made us suffer. I cried as I wrote those words. I meant them with all my soul. I don’t feel that way anymore, and honestly it scares me. I sat on my floor this year and read Eicha just as I did last year, and I found myself counting pages until I could go back to checking Facebook. The things I had cried for last year didn’t even register this year. That scared me. It almost made me cry. Almost. And that scares me even more. I feel myself beginning not to care. Tonight I mourn the empathy inside of me that I feel slowly ebbing away with each passing tragedy.

There is what to be said for becoming jaded. We have to cope somehow. Holding on to every ounce of grief is unhealthy. We need to forget, let go, move on, and stop caring. We need that to live. By the same token, however, we can’t afford to entirely lose the pain we feel when we see a fellow human being suffer. Tonight I pray that God grant me the strength to live with the pain, the fortitude to accept it without giving up, the ability to process and let go of the excess, and gift of always being able to feel it.


The Alchemy of Agony

Author’s note: I know people find this topic very sensitive, so I would like to open with a disclaimer. It is not my intention to compare any two tragedies, only to derive, if possible, some meaning from my and my grandfather’s experiences.

I was raised by Holocaust survivors. I was fed a steady diet of heroic stories of those who died at the hands of the Nazis. The Holocaust was always portrayed as something horrific that had been done to us out of hatred by the Nazis, sanctioned by God for some indeterminate reason, which, much like the process by which nature produces diamonds, beat, burned, and forced the best out of the Jewish people. To this day I still can’t sing ani maamin without crying, as I picture the lines of Jews walking toward their deaths, defiantly singing that haunting yet hopeful song, a song that told both the Nazis and the Jews still left in the camps, that no matter how dark the night, dawn will come. I was raised believing that this was the norm during the Holocaust, and that the Jewish people, even when cast down into the lowest and most hellish of depths, still not only overcame, but rose higher, and became greater than they had been before.

Then I grew up a little. I read Elie Weisel. It hurt me to read the way he described what Jews did to each other during the Holocaust. None of us have a right to judge anyone who lived through that period (certainly not any more than we have a right to judge anyone in whose shoes we haven’t walked), but the depravity to which so many sunk floored me. It hurt me. It shattered my image of pious men with long beards and fiery eyes marching proudly to their deaths, God in their hearts and faith on their lips. I read accounts of Jews who collaborated with Nazis, outed other Jews in hopes of saving themselves. Jews who took advantage, sexually, of other Jews. Jews who participated in the torture and beatings of other Jews. I’m crying as I write this because I’m mourning the innocent part of my soul that died when I learned these things.  My grandfather, in all the stories he told me as I lay on the couch in the dining room after our Friday night meals, never once mentioned any of this.

Or maybe he did. Maybe he did begin to scratch the surface of the darkness surrounding the real story of the Holocaust. Maybe he did begin at the time to temper my starry eyed reverence of people whose strength was indeed legendary, with stories of those who were not as fortunate. He told me about the people who managed to get as far as the fences and instead of trying to escape, flung themselves at the fences, killing themselves rather than suffer another day; about the people who committed suicide immediately following liberation because they couldn’t imagine life after what they had experienced. Perhaps the rosy image I grew up with was a manifestation of a child’s mind, reinforced by the hagiographies recounted through spruced up stories of rebbes and chassidim.

It took years until I could reconcile the two sides I know about the Holocaust. I’m still working on it. But my life thus far has provided me some insight to the power, for good and for evil, of trauma and tragedy.

There’s something transformative about pain, I’ve found. It drives us to our extremes. People like to ask themselves, as I have many times, “What would I do in that situation?” I like to think, as I’m sure most people who consider this question would, that they too would die heroically, giving their lives in defiance of a genocidal oppressor. Others are very clear in their position: They would either be one of those killed immediately, or they would defect to the other side out of sheer self-preservation. The real answer? It’s impossible to know. Tragedy takes a person, spins him around, confuses him, and then exaggerates whatever’s left when the spin cycle stops. It turns your life upside down. What you believed before no longer seems important, and what you knew no longer seems true. You’re left having to rebuild yourself from scratch.

Pain and tragedy breaks, to some extent, everyone it touches; that part is always the same. What subject to change is the aftermath, the part where you rebuild yourself. It is possible to transcend pain, transform it into something beautiful. Eric Weiner, in his book Man Seeks God, describes a man named Pieter, whom he met on his travels. Pieter’s son died a few weeks before he was set to graduate high school. He tried running from his pain, biking from Holland to Turkey, cursing the world, God, the Higher Power, what have you, as he went. As he traveled, the people he met realized his pain and took him in for the night, fed him, gave him shelter. “It was beautiful,” said Pieter. “There is pain. There is beauty. There is help.” Pieter transformed his pain into an art form and became a dervish. Weiner describes what he saw in Pieter as the “Alchemy of agony. Suffering not blunted, but transformed.” Pieter discovered a purpose to his pain, not necessarily an explanation or a reason, but a purpose: a way to transform something terrible into something beautiful.

My grandfather transformed what he experienced in the Holocaust into something beautiful. I saw it in his eyes every time he looked at his grandchildren. The proud defiance, the purpose to his pain, the ultimate good of his suffering. He saw us as not just a replacement for the lives lost in the Holocaust, but as a transcendence of what was done to him, a living testament to the possibility of hope and rebirth in even the darkest places. We have a very large family. I have close to fifty first cousins, many of whom have children of their own. So many children, in fact, that I’ve lost count.

Unfortunately, my little part of the family went to hell pretty early. I don’t have much to do with the rest of them. When I was approximately one year old, my grandfather guessed what would happen to me if I stayed with the family—with my mother—and arranged for my sale to another family. I was to be sold for $1 million to another Jewish family in the area. My mother was in a mental institution at the time, and the transaction was supposed to happen before she got out. It didn’t. She found out and stopped it. For some reason she saw fit to tell me this story as a young child, no doubt she thought it would illustrate her “love” for me. Now that I’m older, though, and can appreciate its significance, there’s something that bothers me about it. Most people wonder about what would have happened to them had they been born into a different family, or in a different era. Generally the question is purely theoretical, but in my case it was almost a reality. I wonder, sometimes, if I could go back and make sure the sale was completed, would I?

It’s a tough question. On the one hand, I may have had an easy life. The family buying me would have undoubtedly have had a lot of money, evidenced by the spare million they were apparently willing to spend on me, odds are they wouldn’t have abused me the way my family did, and I would have led a very simple religious life. On the other hand, perhaps I would not be the person I am today. Then again, perhaps I would be. Perhaps I would still be the writer I am today, with all the same insight and understanding, the same curiosity, the same combination of belief and skepticism with which I try to approach every situation. Perhaps. Then the question becomes, is it worth it? Is everything I’ve suffered worth what it may or may not have made me?

I don’t have a concrete answer yet, but even that’s progress. I’ve gone from wanting to be dead to using what I’ve learned to try and help others currently experiencing what I’ve experienced. I honestly don’t have an answer to whether or not it was worth my life to be the person I am today, but until I have the answer, I still have my pain and what it made me. I’m not sorry for what I am now, even though I may sometimes wish what I am now would never have been necessary.

Yom Hashoah is an interesting day for me because on the one hand I can’t ever imagine myself living through that kind of hell. I can’t see myself surviving it. To build a life afterward is, to me, unfathomable. And yet, it happened for so many. For many it didn’t, but for so many it did. They came here, or moved elsewhere and build homes, businesses, families, fell in love, wrote, sang, cried, laughed—they not only lived but transcended; they became everything the Nazis tried to take from them. Those who didn’t magnify the tragedy. I still have no idea why some people can transcend their experiences and some can’t. I don’t believe it has to do with mental, emotional, or physical constitution. I honestly have no idea what determines who transcends their pain and who doesn’t. I leave that up to God. What Yom Hashoah represents to me is not only a memorial of the people who died, the people who fell, and the people who suffered, but the people who rose, the people who built, the people who transcended. To me it represents hope.