Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Loneliness Paradox

On October 5, 1965 Rabbi Sidney Ballon ז״ל delivered a Yom Kippur sermon on loneliness. He asserted that it is an inevitable condition of life for every one of us, and that rather than to deny it we can use it consciously and constructively in several ways. We can use it to increase our empathy for others, allowing us to appreciate the blessing of friendship all the more. We can use it to generate greater creative expression, as do many artists. After offering a few other observations, he concluded his address by saying that loneliness may be a gateway to faith. He quotes the author of the Psalms, David, who exclaimed “Adonai ro-ee, the Lord is my Shepherd!” This, of course reminded me of the “last sermon” of my brother, Jeff ז״ל, when he too exclaimed with conviction, “Adonai ro-ee!”

In an era where such faith seems unapproachable for so many of us, how can we use the lesson of our family’s great teachers? I search for a theological statement that is so clear and compelling that I can live by it, and moreover, share it in a meaningful way with others. The analogies of the Bible are indicators of the palpable faith of our ancestors, but serve only to reinforce the distance between ourselves and the God with whom our ancestors professed to abide.

When Sidney Ballon preaches about loneliness as a path to connection I’m intrigued by the suggested paradox. It resonates for me in its recognition that regardless of how many people and activities and social networking media we surround ourselves with, we are all inherently alone. It makes me realize that in the occasional moments of lucidity that I may experience—those moments when I feel deeply connected to the Universe—that paradox is very much at work. Our spiritual quests, even conducted in the company of our communities, are ultimately solo activities.

Thinking once again of the words of David, that Jeffrey and Sidney before him found so meaningful, I have the choice to dismiss these words or to let them inspire me to move further along my lonely walk through life’s shadows, searching for the strength, hope, and courage that they so expressively reflect. I am not sure whether it is as much a search for this strength or a search for my own metaphor to describe it. We may be subject to the belief that because there are no adequate words to describe a phenomenon then the phenomenon may not truly exist. That summarizes for me the challenge of faith in the modern age. Logic and science demand definition of the subjects they address. Religion and spirituality, by their very nature, address the issues that defy such definition. Hence we must detach from the insistence to define the indefinable and just open our hearts to accept whatever partial evidence, whatever inadequate metaphor, whatever inexpressible inkling presents itself. Even if we do not possess the courage and the poetry of a David or a Jeffrey to shout, “Adonai ro-ee,” let us be inspired by those who do. Let us remember and honor, and love them through living our lonely lives ever accompanied by their spirit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I Hated It

“I hated it.”
Those three little words, in response to my therapist’s question, “How did you feel about being the rabbi’s son?” were the key to unlocking a decades long battle with my father. You see, as simple a phase as it may be, when I uttered that response it came as both a great surprise and a great relief for the first time in my life to become conscious of this truth. 
It was around the same time—early 1991—that I discovered Robert Bly’s so-called “Men’s Movement” which also served to help reshape my relationship with my father— at that time about sixteen years after his death. I consciously began a new journey toward connecting with him in a way I had not done since I was very young, if I had ever done so at all.
Several months after my cathartic moment in therapy, I was back East with a few friends from high school whom I had not seen in many years.  I told them of my startling revelation. To a person they all shrugged and laughed, saying, “Of course, Doug, we all knew that!” I was left wondering why it had taken me over forty years to figure it out for myself.
That was over twenty years ago, and what began as a trickle of acceptance and a portal to filial love has become a gushing fountain as I pore through the archives of Dad’s sermons. They represent more than a scholarly walk through time. They bring him to life through a rich exposition of his most passionate concerns about Judaism and life itself.
A few nights ago the topic of emotions came up in my men’s group (that incidentally has been meeting almost weekly since shortly after I discovered the Men’s Movement). I mentioned how I had discovered this hidden emotion—my hatred of being the rabbi’s son. One group member asked me to say more about what I hated. In another moment of self-discovery I responded that it was less about the pressures of being a focal point of community expectation and more about the fact that he was out serving them so much that he seemed absent in my life.
Then it hit me—one reason that I am luxuriating so in reading these sermons. Day after day, night after night, I reach out for him and he is there. I pick up the pages that he held in his hands. I carefully release the corroded paper clip that he so casually adhered to these pages decades ago. I sit or lie back and read his words. I quickly discover with each four or five or six-page packet whether he is routinely responding to the duty of delivering his weekly message, or whether he has tapped into a deeper wellspring of fervor on a topic that emanates from his core beliefs. Either way, I hear his voice. He may have been talking to a sparse gathering in Columbia, South Carolina in 1939 or to an assembly of soldiers on Keesler Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi during the early years of World War II, or to his thriving congregation on Long Island in the fifties and sixties. Regardless of the original audience, in these moments he is speaking solely to me. I have my daddy all to myself, and I love being his son.