Seven years ago it became clear to me that my life was broken. My heart was broken. I was broken. I was pregnant with my fourth daughter. I was seven years into marriage, and I was miserable. I felt like I was caught in some kind of web not of my own design, and I wanted desperately to break free. In retrospect, I could not even identify the individual strands that bound me, but I knew I was imprisoned. I felt so sure that I had “dealt with” my past. I talked to a therapist about my difficult relationship with my mother. I found the courage to end my relationship with my father after years of enduring his abuse. I had spent time addressing the issues surrounding my abduction experience. Not a lot of time, but I did not think that I was in denial. So, why was I in so much pain? Why did my life feel like something to be endured?
The idea that life is to be endured has been on my mind lately. I think that I’ve been enduring life. Surviving once again. AAAACH!!! I thought that I was past that. I’m not about surviving. I’m about thriving. Haven’t I mastered the art of surviving? There is a better way than treading water. I know that. So, why am I here yet again? When I step back, study the situation, study the state of my inner life, I have to admit that grief is behind my latest dance with survival. I am grieved because I am witnessing my relationship with my mother thrash in its final death throe.
There are rules that I follow in my relationships. I do not attack another’s character. I do not indulge my anger by losing my temper which, in turn, results in hurt feelings, spiritual bruises, and humiliation. I do not engage in destructive accusations, and I will not spiritually assassinate another person–even if I could. Humility must be my guide in even my most difficult relationships. Unfortunately, there are people in my life who live by another set of rules. My mother is one of them. I have compassion for her because of her mental illness, but does mental illness justify bad behavior? In most cases of mental illness be they Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or any other disorder a person has moments of clarity. In those lucid moments, the choices become clear. I have seen my mother arrive at lucidity. She sees more clearly, and she realizes what she must do to walk the path of reconciliation–take her medications and find a trained psychotherapist who will be invested in her healing and success. Those are the moments that count because in those moments she has the capacity to make a better decision. She knows what must be done, but as soon as she arrives at the truth she decides to stay where she is, in her own personal Egypt.
The Tanakh recounts the story of the Jews and their 400 years of captivity in Egypt. That is approximately 16 generations! Imagine being in the sixteenth generation. The racial memories imprinted on the souls of those Jewish slaves were not about liberation, joys to come, healing, or even hope. Sixteen generations knew nothing but captivity. They had watched the pharaoh abduct and murder their newborn sons. They knew hard labor, hard days, and hard hearts. Injustice, trauma, hopelessness, and death were the terms of their existence. But then…God.
God showed up in the person of Moses and thus begins one of the most incredible stories ever told. It is the reason we celebrate Pesach, or Passover. The Jewish slaves as well as the Egyptians witnessed the saving power of God as well as His justice. Finally, after 16 generations the Jews with some Egyptians mixed in left Egypt. There would be justice. There would be a new life. There was hope after all.
We all carry Egypt with us, Jew or Gentile, because we have all endured some form of slavery that we did not choose. My Egypt has been a land of trauma, all sorts of abuse, injustice, and immense loneliness and darkness. I have also made a few choices to tend my own plot of land in Egypt. I am a master at self-pity and discouragement. I am an expert craftsman in those practices. I also possess talents in daydreaming (at its best) and dissociation (at its worst). When the going gets rough, I get going to…lands of romance, chivalry, justice, pleasure, sex, and endless recreation. And, I have discovered that I am also very good at practical agnosticism. I am often quite comfortable in Egypt. It’s predictable. It’s comforting in an odd way. It’s an easy choice.
And there you have it. It’s the easier choice, but it is the most costly. If I leave behind my personal Egypt, then what will happen to me? Well, I just have to know the rest of the story played out in the continuing account of the Jews in the book of Exodus. After God passes over all of the homes with the blood of sacrificial lambs painted on the doors and lintels, the exodus begins. It is estimated that around 2.5 million men, women, and children left Egypt, and, boy, did God show up. His power was on display–pillars of smoke, the parting of the Red Sea, the death of the Egyptian captors in hot pursuit. Even wandering in the wilderness they were fed daily from the hand of God in the form of manna. God gave Moses the Torah–a constitution. And, it did not take long for the complaining to start–“Life was easier in Egypt.” Was it really easier? Was it better? No, but it was predictable. Slavery had become a way of life for the Israelites. They did not have to think for themselves. Their lives were already planned for them–they were slaves. There was no choice here. Sixteen generations of people did not know any other way of living. Now, they were free. Talk about a paradigm shift. If you are anything like me, paradigm shifts take time, and they are difficult.
So, my mother has chosen to stay in Egypt. It’s easier. It’s predictable. But, it is costing her two generations–her son-in-law, her daughter, and four granddaughters. She would rather stay in bondage then take a risk, make better choices, and join us in the exodus. And, that grieves me to my bones. My heart is broken over it. It is impossible not to feel rejected. My daughters feel rejected. My husband is past caring, and yet I linger at the border of Egypt and the Promised Land. I continue to look back hoping that she will come with us, but I do not think that she will.
What would it cost her if she decided to leave her own plot of land in Egypt? She would have to be accountable for her past and present behavior. She would have to engage in reality. She would have to take stock of the damage that she has done and make amends. She would have to go back and spend some time in the ruins of her past. Tear up the old, faulty foundations so that new ones, strong and even, could replace them. She would have to humble herself. She would have to forgive some unforgivable things. She would have to ask for forgiveness. She would have to engage in the process of reconciliation. She would have to break the molds that have defined her, her view of others, and her view of God. It would be a long and painful process. It would take years. But, in the process she would know hope because I have offered forgiveness. Certainly, God offers it. There is power in enduring the process with others. Going through ordeals together binds us to one another. We cultivate trust, loyalty, faithfulness, and intimacy when we suffer with other people who are committed to our restoration. In the end, our lives are defined by whom we have loved well and who has loved us well. It is not meant to be lived out sequestered away from the world in our dark and lonely bowers. As one of my friends has said, “A lone primate is a dead primate.” We were made for so much more than grief, loneliness, bitterness, unforgiveness, and isolation, but the choice is ours.
I would like to share with you Pesach Sheni. Pesach is the Hebrew word for “Passover”. Passover is the Jewish holiday during the springtime that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from captivity in Egypt. Pesach Sheni is the Second Passover. It was instituted by God at the request of Moses on behalf of those people who were ritually unclean during the Passover celebration or those who were too far away to celebrate with their families and people. According to the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) the significance of the Second Passover is :
“…it is never too late to rectify a past failing. Even if a person has failed to fulfill a certain aspect of his or her mission in life because s/he has been “contaminated by death” (i.e., in a state of disconnection from the divine source of life) or “on a distant road” from his people and G-d, there is always a Second Passover in which s/he can make good on what s/he has missed out.
The Second Passover thus represents the power of teshuvah — the power of return. Teshuvah is commonly translated as repentance, but it is much more than turning a new leaf and achieving forgiveness for past sins. It is the power to go back in time and redefine the past.
Teshuvah is achieved when a negative deed or experience is applied in a way that completely transforms its significance. When a person’s contact with death evokes in him a striving for life he would never have mustered without that experience; when his wanderings on distant roads awaken in him a yearning for home he would never have otherwise felt — these hitherto negative experiences are literally turned inside out. Contact with death is transformed into a more intense involvement with life; distance into a greater closeness.” (Chabad.org)
You see, second chances are always possible even when all we know is death or isolation. I don’t think that I can linger near Egypt any longer. I may want the best for her, but, in her case, she has to want it more than I, and in my own continual looking back, I am tempted to stay, too.
What does this mean for you? I challenge you to take a look at your personal Egypt. I also encourage you to take heart and know that it is never too late to begin your journey to freedom. Life awaits you.