A story – told by Daniel Isay, the founder of Story Corps, to Krista Tippett on her show, On Being… Are you familiar with Story Corps? Story Corps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, having collected and archived more than 60,000 interviews at the Library of Congress. People walk into a recording booth with loved ones and ask questions they’ve always wanted to ask. So Mr. Isay was describing interviewing his beloved dad, and asking him the often asked question, “What are you most proud of, Dad?” For years after the interview, he teased his father (with some measure of hurt), about his answer—everyone always answers that question with, “My kid,” or “you kids”. His father’s response was, “My books.” A soul crushing experience, had he not known his father truly loved him… For years he held on to this story…
…Until the day his father died, when he replayed the interview and arrived at the crucial moment. “Dad, what are you most proud of?” His dad replied, “You kids, of course…and…my books.”
How often has that happened to you? That your version of the story turns out to be less than accurate? Or even different from how someone else remembers it? That you are holding on to some hurt that wasn’t intended…or even there?
The same day I heard that story, I heard Terry Gross interview Rabbi Susan Silverman (Sarah Silverman’s older sister) on Fresh Air. Susan told the story of her lifelong crippling fear that members of her family would die while she was out of the house—at school, at her friends’ houses, wherever she went without them. Crippling fear—she had to call her mother repeatedly during the average school day to make sure she was okay, to tamp down her anxiety.
In her 20s, Susan sought therapy and, two years in, she mentioned, mentioned, to her therapist that her baby brother had died when she was around 2.
“Wait, what??” asked the therapist.
Turns out, when Susan was a toddler, her brother was an infant. Their parents had decided to take a single weekend to themselves, leaving Susan with one set of grandparents and her brother with the other. While the family was separated, her baby brother died of crib death. The family was, of course, devastated, and, as was the practice in those days, never spoke of it. Susan had repressed—or lost—the memory, but the loss, “forgotten” though it was, had had a profound effect on her life.
Memory—or lack of it—can do a number on us. What we don’t process, what we don’t examine, acknowledge, own—can come back to bite us… cause anxiety, depression, you name it.
In my own life, my two sisters and I experienced our childhood (and we are less than 4 years apart from oldest to me), it seems, completely differently. My sisters often told me I was self-centered and selfish because I never seemed to know what was going on around me—to them, I didn’t care. When I was 14, we learned (or confirmed) that I was hearing impaired, and it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that we learned I’d been born that way—and rather than being disinterested, I’d actually worked really hard to understand what went on around me, learning unconsciously to lip read for example. Getting hearing aids in my 20s changed my life. But my sisters were weaving their story of me from what they experienced, as opposed to what was actually true. I appeared not to pay attention. They just didn’t understand where it came from.
R’ Alan Lew (z”l) wrote,
I wonder how many of us are holding on very hard to some piece of personal history that is preventing us from moving on with our lives, and keeping us from those we love. I wonder how many of us cling so tenaciously to a version of the story of our lives in which we appear to be utterly blameless and innocent, that we become oblivious to the pain we have inflicted on others, no matter how unconsciously or inevitably or innocently we may have inflicted it…Forgiveness, it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. (This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 50.)
One of our names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZicharon—the Day of Remembrance. God remembers everything God’s done and everything we have done, and we are asked to call to mind, if we haven’t started already, what we have done over the next 10 days and fix what needs fixing.
How do you hear what happens around you? Do you use a kindness filter or a fright filter? Do you see others as part of your family of humanity or as The Other who must be feared? What are the stories you tell yourself that cause you pain? That you carry around as a reminder of mistreatment, or of shame or regret? Do you tell yourself that because someone hurt you, you are unlovable, or, alternatively, they are evil? Or do you see people as flawed, human and therefore divine?
The idea that you can look at each event in your life and tell yourself a story that can re-orient your perspective: that’s part of our spiritual work during this period—and can set ourselves on the path to a better life.
But we have to be willing to examine our lives—to wake up, as Maimonides reminds us at the blowing of the shofar. And as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer tells us, our signature is on every page of our life… we did these things. But we have to have the strength to look at the page and face what we did, and then we have to be able to incorporate it in a way that encourages growth.
This works on a national level as well as an individual level. For example, our sacred texts care less about the facts than they care about the Truth that transcends facts. They may not be historically accurate, but they give us truths that can guide our lives. Jewish myth making may be a major reason we are still here. It is less important whether the Exodus physically happened than that we tell each other this story about redemption every year, and remember every day that we have been strangers in a strange land, freed from slavery. Is the stranger who doesn’t look like you to be feared or embraced as we wanted to be embraced?
Research by Professor Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and the Implicit Bias Project shows that our conscious mind is more advanced than our unconscious mind: while we may consciously favor equality of the sexes, of different groups, our unconscious mind is still fixed on differences. For example, she tells a riddle in her book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, that you may have heard…
A father and son are in a terrible car accident. The father, unfortunately dies at the scene. The son is seriously hurt and transported to the hospital, where he is rushed to the operating room. The surgeon looks at the patient and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy! He’s my son.” How is this possible?
How many of you knew that the surgeon was his mother?
Banaji says that consistently, 80% of people do not arrive at that answer. Even people whose mothers are surgeons… Even doctors at hospitals where most of the surgical residents are women. Even those of us who have watched Grey’s Anatomy faithfully for years.
Our brains were trained somewhere along the lines to seek differences—it might have been a matter of life or death. But Judaism has been addressing this for millennia… The Talmud records, among its list of blessings a blessing for when you see someone different from you—with examples such as a very black person, someone from a foreign land, with one arm shorter than the other…we have a blessing for that: Baruch ata Adonai, m’shaneh habriot: blessed is the One who made creation diverse. The rabbis knew back then that we likely needed to be trained how to behave, tame our unconscious mind, to be kind to those who are different from us.
And we can look at the stories that we tell about the pressing issues of the day: for example Black Lives Matter. African Americans experience contact with the police very differently than white Americans. I don’t dread a traffic stop, except for the ticket I probably deserved. They do. With reason. A traffic stop can end their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. If we get stuck on the idea that all lives matter, we miss that the Black Lives Matter message tells us that it would be really wonderful if we all acknowledged that black lives matter TOO, that we should care that racism is still a strong force in our country. As antisemitism is written into the cultural code of the west, racism is written into the cultural code of the United States.
We could apply this being able to acknowledge that our version of the truth may not be completely accurate or the only version to so many of the major issues in our world today…
But I digress from my main message:
One of my teachers taught me that one of his teachers taught him to use each moment when he might have wanted to tear his hair out—each moment something went seemingly wrong, as an opportunity for growth… Rather than look at the experience as a negative, something to be moved on from, but instead as a teachable moment, this reframing turns these experiences into holy moments from which spiritual growth comes.
For me personally, this lesson was a revelation—and when I can remember to do it, it works.
Pirkei Avot, the teachings of our ancestors in the Mishnah, asks, “Who is wise?” and answers the question, “The person who learns from everyone.” Sometimes the teaching is a negative one—don’t act like that person; I don’t want to treat people the way I was treated that person…And the ability to see each interaction as a moment to learn can inspire us to do what Maimonides urges: “WAKE UP.”
When you hear yourself telling a story that brings you pain, imagine someone else telling the same story. For instance, I know a lovely young couple—I officiated their wedding and love them both. His mother is a challenging person, who can’t quite seem to show love. She’s cold, he says. For years, she was unable to acknowledge his wonderful girlfriend, now wife. Recently, Mom mentioned his wife (now mother to her first grandchild)—in a text, and he shared this news with her (his wife). When it was confirmed that yes, Mom had actually used her name—maybe for the first time—the wife saw this as progress, while the husband/son was still feeling the cold his mom emanates… We encouraged him to listen to his wife’s version of the story and notice the progress, no matter how glacial.
Another instance… I live next door to the Smart train tracks and near a crossing, which means the whistle blows outside our house regularly. Someone on our neighborhood list serve complained bitterly about the noise—we should all gather to complain! Some people agreed, while others noted that the whistle is actually kind of pleasant, evokes happy memories of train rides, warns us to watch where we cross, cares about our safety. Who do you think is happier?
Or think about the person who speeds by you on the freeway — might their story be that, instead of being an entitled selfish person endangering others’ lives, they are rushing to the hospital to say their last words to their parent or to hold their sick child?
Or if the story is that we are speeding because we are going to be late to work and our boss will be angry or our job threatened, can we use this as an opportunity for growth—to leave for work 15 minutes earlier? Encourage our kids to be ready earlier? Figure out a morning routine that works?
So I ask again: What are the stories you tell yourself that hold you back, that cause you pain? Ask yourself, where did they come from—the unprocessed pain of childhood, like Susan Silverman’s story or something similar?
Ask yourself if you can let go of your version to let in someone else’s. Try a new interpretation. Listen with your conscious mind’s perspective. Open your heart to new possibilities.
I want to thank Rabbi George Gittleman, Rabbi Birdie Becker, my beloved Sam, for their teachings, and Krista Tippett and Teri Gross especially for stimulating my thoughts on the topic. Of course, all inaccuracies are mine.