Last month, I had what felt like an earth shattering experience with a friend—a dear friend— of 40 years. Let’s call him Jack. We were having our usual hands free conversation on my way home from work about a political/spiritual issue, when suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere to me, he began to berate me. Despite my tepid attempts to stop him—“That’s a little harsh,” I repeated a few times, he continued, as I drove across the Richmond Bridge through Marin until the Narrows. To no avail. He kept going. Until I said I needed to get off the phone.
Shaken, I called another friend, whose first question was, “Why did you stay on the phone?”
She told me, “That was abuse.” She was right. It was. And I still can’t come up with a better reason than my brain froze—rather than flight or fight, I freeze when confronted with such a situation.
Jack’s and my relationship—40 years of regular contact—emotional intimacy (at least on my part)—hangs in the balance. He told me a few days later that while he was sorry he’d berated me, he hadn’t meant to do it—as though that makes a difference to the reality of what he did. His excuse was that I had said something hurtful to him… 18 months before.
He had held on to something for 18 months, without coming to me and working it through. Had I been wrong to think we had an intimate friendship?
And then, when he told me what I had done…I have absolutely no recollection of the conversation, and indeed could barely remember the people he says I invoked, let alone the situations—people we knew over 35 years ago.
As someone who strives to take responsibility for my mistakes, for the ways I hurt people I care about and how I am in the world, I don’t know how to take responsibility for this. I have no memory of it, not because I’m embarrassed, but because it either wasn’t that important to me and I have trouble remembering what I said two days ago—or it didn’t happen how he remembers it. The best I can do—have done—is to express sadness for the pain my words triggered in him.
This is a situation completely outside Maimonides’ template for repentance: acknowledge what I’ve done wrong—I can’t because I have no memory of this. Resolve never to do it again—again, how? Fix what I can fix: I’ve apologized for the pain, but since all it seems he wants is for me to own it, I’m stuck there as well. And then when I’m in the same situation again, don’t do it. Again, how?
I wonder whether I am the cause of his pain, or whether it comes from a deeper place and I am either the easiest target or the current trigger.
Early on, while I was still hurting, broken, feeling unsafe after that long harangue, I didn’t care. But I kept witnessing the pain he was expressing, and didn’t want to be the person who walked away from a friend in pain, or especially be a rabbi who walked away from a person in pain. But I also didn’t want to be a person who took verbal or emotional abuse, which was still spewing from his mouth.
I have asked myself whether I went somewhere I shouldn’t have gone in a conversation that was so unimportant to me it doesn’t register.
Which got me to thinking—when we are talking to other people—certainly, when I am talking with other people—how careful am I to weigh my words, to think carefully about whether something is true, kind and necessary? Whether my words, easily said, inflict unintentional pain? Do I sit with them before they come out of my mouth, or do they just fly? Even when I’m working as a chaplain, when I am careful, I have moments when I cringe at my less than model skills. How much more so, when I’m sharing a casual conversation with an old friend?
Just as Jack and I were beginning this process, my Mussar group of sister rabbis had started to look at the middah or trait of brokenness, shevirah.
First, a short aside about the word, brokenness… I’ve noticed that people have very different reactions to the word, “broken.” As in broken-hearted… Is there a person in this room who has not been broken-hearted at some point? Or broken spirited? For a while? And yet, some people I love dearly flat out refuse to apply the term ‘broken’ to themselves—bent maybe, blemished possibly, hurt certainly, but broken can be an injury too far…
But back to the Mussar sisters: In our study, we read two passages that were exactly the words I needed to hear. I recognize that the first one might seem off center, but give it a minute…
In Leviticus, we are told that the priests who make the offerings at the Temple must be blemish-free. I have always thought—what kind of able-ism or looks-ism is this? As someone with genetic problems healing skin eruptions—cuts, even paper cuts can take months to heal, this has always felt horrible. But Rabbi Ted Falcon offered me a new way to look at it—and to look at my life—and I hope, your lives. He wrote:
A blemish is something that we know to be wrong with us, whether it is revealed or hidden. When we are engaged in finding fault with others or ourselves, focusing on outer and inner blemishes, we are not available for more inclusive dimensions of consciousness.
When we are judging, we are cut off from being open to others’ pain….He continues, by claiming that
“The archetype of priest is activated through unconditional acceptance … Priestly consciousness is a love consciousness, and in love consciousness, blemish is never hidden, never denied. It is accepted and embraced. That acceptance allows the transcendence of blemish, and the transcendence of blemish is the doorway to holiness.
“It is true that a blemished priest cannot approach the holiness of the ancient tabernacle, because in that authentic approach, there is no longer blemish. “
This was a Wow moment. When we can hold our blemishes—those sides of ourselves we judge as unworthy—in love, then they dissolve into our wholeness—our inner beauty shines through. He continues,
“Our inner and our outer blemishes yearn to be met, acknowledged, and accepted. The less we pretend to be without blemish, the more available we are for engaging in loving relationships in our world.”
That’s what worked for me—stop wasting my energy trying to pretend or deny my blemishes. Then maybe I’ll be more emotionally available. Unless we can hold ourselves in compassion, complete with all our flaws, we will remain walled off—from ourselves and from others. But once we do, then we are ready to spread compassion, to let it ripple out into the world.
I’ve thought about this a lot—because we know people—we may be the people—who are much kinder to others than to ourselves. I spoke to a woman the other day who told me that she can’t forgive herself for how she treated her mother, whom she didn’t treat as badly as she perceived (according to her own narrative). I asked her what her mother would say to her now, and she told me her mother would tell her she loved her and she did the best she could. When my daughter has sometimes condemned herself for something she’s done, I’ll ask her what she would say to a friend who did the same thing, and she too will be much gentler with the friend.
But I think that’s Rabbi Falcon’s point: until we can see ourselves in a loving, accepting way, we are not whole, and we don’t have the energy to engage. We might help others, care for others, but not truly engage with them. We might be conflict avoidant, or nurse our grievances out of fear of rejection, as I think Jack did, and so we don’t achieve that intimacy we crave.
In the Mussar sisters’ same reading, I came across a teaching from one of my teachers, R’ David Jaffe, who quoted Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the book Just Mercy, about his work with death row inmates. He wrote,
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…The ways in which I have been hurt – and have hurt others – are different from the ways Jimmy Dill [a man with mental illness who murdered] suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us… We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (p. 289)
Taking in these words, my world opened. As a companion to R’ Falcon, I felt a light shine through—that we are all broken somehow, we hurt and we are hurt. But by embracing our own humanity entirely, we can become whole and help others do the same.
Since reading these fragments, I have tried to follow the advice—love all of myself, even the parts that need help, embrace my shadows, my behaviors that cause pain, and nurture them into something else.
And to be clear, I am not saying—love my faults, accept them and move on. No need to improve.
Not at all.
I am saying that when we can give compassion to ourselves, we can give it to others. Our spiritual journey, to me, is always about being the best version of ourselves.
It’s just that I know, after the tirade from Jack, and similar experiences, that I have an easier time working with what I want to grow out of or into when I do it from love, from compassion. Being made to feel ashamed rarely works, because we will do anything to deny shame. On the other hand, guilt can work… The type that scratches our conscience, makes us uncomfortable and comes from that place that forces us to ask ourselves, “How could I, someone of a certain spiritual level, or with good values, have done this?” It’s that sentence some parents use: “I’m disappointed in your behavior.” And we can feel their love and their embrace of our whole selves.
Sylvia Boorstein offers a lovely way to nurture ourselves through this. When we are feeling the pain of brokenness, we can repeat her teaching, “Sweetheart, I see you are in pain. Relax, breathe, let’s pay attention to what is happening, then we’ll figure out what to do.” Talk to ourselves with love, “Sweetheart.” Acknowledge the pain. Then, breathe. Then take some time to what is really going on, and only once we’ve done that, can we figure out what to do. If we use this enough, we can eventually just say, “Sweetheart…” and it will lead to breathing, paying attention enough to calm ourselves to figure out next steps.
So our work for these next 24 hours or so could be to look at our mistakes, our sins as it were—sins being those behaviors that keep us separated from our best, our true selves, and from our loved ones, from the Divine. Let’s look at these behaviors as a part of ourselves, to love ourselves anyway—not in spite of but just because—we are all unique—made in the image of God, a spark of the divine, with breath that feeds the universe. Acknowledge every part of you, hold it up to the light, so you can really see the cracks, and remember—the cracks are how the light gets in.
THE UNBROKEN by Rashani Rea
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness out of which blooms
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy;
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength…
There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.