I often get replies and emails from people telling me how fortunate I am to have a life rife with unfortunate events. I usually trash these well-meaning yet invasive, even brazen, suggestions that my suffering is in fact a blessing.
First I would say that compared to most of the suffering people I know and interact with, mine is petty, and I know it. But it’s MY suffering, and I will not abrogate my right to express how I feel about it.
I would like to draw your attention to an illustration in the Bible that shows us that even the strong can suffer greatly, although they might not show it to everyone. There are many such illustrations in Scripture, but this one has always caught my attention: the story of the prophet Elisha (student of Elijah) and the Shunamite woman (Shunam is a place-name): Kings II 4:11-37
True to a common theme in the Bible, the Shunamite woman was childless, and the Man of God (Elisha) caused her to conceive and bear a son. The son grew and went to the fields with his father, and suddenly cried out “My head, my head!” And fell down senseless, and his father’s attendant carried him to his mother. His mother held him on her lap until he died, and then she carried his body to the attic room where Elisha was accustomed to stay, and she laid him on Elisha’s bed.
Then she took a donkey and rode up to the cave of Elijah in Carmel (I have been there and it is on the side of a cliff, no small feat to arrive there). She called out Elisha and said, “Why did you give me a child if it was just going to be taken from me?” And she threw her arms around his knees and vowed that she would not let go until Elisha came with her.
Which he did, and found the dead boy lying on his bed. First Elisha told his servant Gehazi to lay Elisha’s staff across the child’s face, but nothing happened, so Elisha stretched himself out on top of the boy and blew into his mouth. Nothing happened, so he walked around the house, first one way, then the other, and then repeated the mouth-to-mouth until the boy sneezed seven times and sat up. Elisha said, “Pick up your son!” So she fell at his feet in gratitude, after which she “picked up her son and left.” 4:37
This story illustrates that suffering does not always show on the outside. Elisha knew that the Shunamite woman suffered because she had no child; and when her child died and she went to Elisha, she said, “Did I ever ask for a child? Did you give me a child just to mock me?”
“What, is this some cruel joke you have played on me?” says the Shunamite woman. Elisha had nothing to say to that, so he had to come with her.
This is all very mysterious, and full of implied questions and gaps in logic. The answers to the many questions raised here are addressed in the Gemara, the huge library of Jewish commentary and law. One set of the books of the Gemara take up entire walls.
The Gemara is full of stories like the one about the woman whose child dies on Friday afternoon (the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday nights). Not wanting to destroy her husband’s joy in the Sabbath, she waited to tell him about their son’s death until after the Sabbath, all the while acting as if there was nothing wrong.
I heard of a great scholar in my neighborhood whose wife died on Friday afternoon, and when the Sabbath came in he rejoiced, ate and drank and sang like usual, until the end of the Sabbath, at which time he sat down on a low stool and mourned bitterly. This he did for the Shivah week, the week after her death, and the following Friday (for Shabbat is not counted in the seven days of Shivah) he got up from his stool, bathed and changed his clothes (part of the intense mourning of the Shivah week is that we don’t do these things), and rejoiced in the Shabbat when it came in.
There is a book put out by the Breslov brand of Hassidim called the “Garden of Emunah.” emunah meaning “faith.” Since the Breslov sect’s founder, Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, taught (in the 17th century C.E.) that we must never despair, his followers often interpret that to mean “always be happy, never be sad, and depression is a depraved state of mind.” This book, “The Garden of Emunah,” is filled with anecdotes about horrible things happening to children, and awful illnesses happening to mothers of 12, and the theme is that they all took it as a blessing from God that they got to suffer in these ways.
I am not that holy.
If that’s what it takes to get to….wherever…..it’s like, OK God, these humans are telling me that You don’t give me anything I can’t bear.
Um, let me let you in on a secret.
You made me, right? And You made the shoulders that are supposed to bear my burden.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the part about how You have wide shoulders, and all I have to do is give my burdens over to You, let go and let God, etc., but let me tell You, Boss, how long to I have to throw myself on the ground and cry out to You before something gives? Am I a cruel joke, that you’ve created me and now you play with me like a cat plays with a toy?
Elisha, Elisha, where are you? They say that Elijah the Prophet can appear anytime, disguised as anyone, especially a beggar. I am certainly a beggar, but I am no Elijah.
I climbed up the cliff path to his cave in Carmel, and I inserted myself into a niche in the deepest part of the cave, and I prayed, and I went into another world. I lost track of time, and almost missed my ride. Four years later, I received a healing from something physical, Hallelu-Yah.
I have given up praying for my mental illness to be taken away. I think of King David and King Saul, both of whom were mentally ill until their deaths. Saul lost his kingship because of a manic act of disobedience to God. David’s cycles of elation and crashing depression are clearly written in the Psalms. Samuel I also illustrates the craziness of both Saul and David, as elaborated in the link above.
So to all you bearers of Sweetness-And-Light, please enjoy your easy lives and don’t envy those whose burdens appear to be heavier than yours. As a physically disabled friend of mine says, “You are all Temporarily Able-bodied.”
I would add, “You are all Temporarily Sane.”