I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it. For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.
That works for a while–the distancing. It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful. It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”. But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:
Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us. That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.
But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work. I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it. Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online. I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people. I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race. I could barely reach out to my friends. I was just trying to stay afloat. We are talking about surviving here. Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I lost friends in the process. There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did. It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving. Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge. You will be “remodeled”. You aren’t the same, but you are still you. So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?
At this point on the road, this is where I’m at. I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now. We can get up and move. As always, I wish you all great peace and…
I just started reading Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.
Maria Kondo struck a nerve in America with her runaway hit The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I, however, need to do more than just tidy up. I need to purge. Do you know what I mean?
I’ve lived in my house for 19 years. That’s a long time to live in a singular space, and, while I make it a point to donate gently used items quarterly (or we would have nowhere to hang our hats), it’s nowhere near enough. I have four daughters. Children seem to amass large quantities of things. People give them things. They collect things. They want to keep them forever. I understand that. I feel sentimental about certain things. Children, however, seem to feel sentimental about almost everything–even that used napkin from last Tuesday when their friend came over and used it to wipe dirt off the floor. It’s actually a testament to their wonder, I think, and capacity to be 100% present.
And if you have a basement?! God have mercy on you.
Another round of donating is not what I’m about to embark on. In ten months, I am moving house. Three years ago, I announced on this blog that my marriage was ending after years of back-and-forthing and writing about domestic violence and emotional abuse and, “Is it really that bad?” A year-and-half ago, I went back to graduate school, and next summer three of my daughters and I are headed West–to the Bay Area. To live in a very small space no doubt. It’s the beginning of another new adventure.
So, I have to examine every single thing I own and decide: Do I need this or not? And, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. That’s why I picked up Sasaki’s book. I figured, hey, there must be some good advice in here. At a minimum, maybe I’ll feel inspired or mentored. Sasaki, thusly, defines minimalism as:
“Minimalism is a lifestyle in which you reduce your possessions to the absolute minimum you need. Living as a minimalist with the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits like the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning, it has also led to a more fundamental shift. It’s given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.” (pp. 20-25).
Here is an example of a minimalist bedroom:
A minimalist kitchen:
A minimalist bathroom:
A minimalist living room:
I have noticed that all of these images are super posh, and, in my opinion, this should be more accessible. What does a middle-of-the-road minimalistic apartment or house look like? You know, where ordinary people reside. Of note, this is not a movement aimed at people living in poverty. First-world countries are heavily affected by consumerism and capitalistic expenditures, and the USA tops that list with China and Japan featuring second and third. Americans are awash in stuff:
The USA features the highest levels of per household disposable income and expenditure. High income levels boost the capacity for discretionary spending of US households, although the country’s income gap remains large and continues to rise. (Euromonitor International)
I wonder what sort of impact those of us with too much stuff would have on our communities if we donated the items we truly don’t need and seldom if ever used and stopped using our income to acquire more goods, thusly, changing how we “consume”? Furthermore, what sort of impact would this have on our time–an invaluable resource? I imagine that owning less means having more time, too, because we have to dedicate time to caring for our stuff. How might we spend our resources if we moved in a minimalistic direction with intention? Over the next 10 months, I intend to find this out. I can tell you right now what my two biggest problems are going to be–whittling down the book collection, my kitchen implements because I am a cook, and tea accoutrements. I have an unusually large number of really beautiful teacups most of which were gifted to me, and I can’t take them all with me.
Perhaps I ought to do a giveaway! One teacup a week…
Anyone like teacups? English teacups? And then there are the Yixing teapots…
God have mercy indeed (I’m actually sort of excited to see how this experiment turns out).
I receive many emails asking how to fix a loved one. It might be a mother with a personality disorder or a partner or family member with alexithymia. In both cases, I have been that self-same person on the search for solutions. I have asked the same questions: What can I do to fix this? Is it me? Can I fix myself so that they will love me? Can I fix them by giving them books to read or directing them to resources? Maybe they had bad modeling as children and just need to be loved better, and I’m the one to do it!
I have loved someone with a disordered personality that kept them out of reach, distant from me, isolating me on a loveless and lonely island. For years, I dove into the treacherous sea of uncertainty and swam to distant coastlines in an attempt to rescue my own mother from her mental illness. I came bearing recommendations and suggestions that I swore would help her. I only roused her inner demons and exacerbated her illness causing her to throw me back into the black waters which promptly washed me back onto the rocky shores of my tiny island.
I loved another person who seemed to thrive on isolation and personal inertia. From the moment we returned from the weekend in a hotel we called our honeymoon, he holed up in a room and rarely ventured forth into the outside world. He preferred fantasy over reality. He disdained my presence and cultivated an impoverished sense of love and relationships while also developing a deluded and grandiose sense of self. It did not matter how hard I tried to enter into his personal poverty or what riches I offered him. He rejected everything. He preferred his own distorted interpretation of the world. He chose himself even over his children. Whether he lacked the capacity or the will, it did not matter for he simply did not act. He remained as he ever was.
What then? The heart wants what it wants and loves whom it loves, but then what? When the truth becomes apparent, and when will it become apparent? When you ask for it. When you want it. And, what is this truth? It is not your job to change people. It is not your job to fix people.
It is your job to change and heal yourself.
It is our job to develop our personalities and our character so that we are continually becoming the kind of people with whom we would like to partner either platonically or romantically. This is no small task. It is so much easier and, honestly, far more fun to look at other people and pick them apart. It’s vastly entertaining to scrutinize and judge our acquaintances and even our partners. That smug feeling we experience when we climb onto our high horses is like taking a hit of heroine. It’s addictive. Why? Here is an interesting take on judgment:
“At some point in our life, usually in childhood, some external event causes us to separate from that true nature. That separation from love creates in us feelings of specialness or inadequacy, leading to loneliness and as a result, fear. So we project it outward in the form of judgment.
We know we are loving, interconnected beings, but in our separation we live in a dream state, shutting off our connection to our loving truth. This separation establishes the ego’s perception of a false self based on judgment. We grow to believe deeply in the false perception of ourselves in order to feel safe in the world of separation.
Deep down, and without realizing it, we judge ourselves for separating from our truth, leading us to feel ashamed and guilty. That unconscious guilt is so painful that we have no choice but project it outward in an effort to end our suffering. By projecting judgment onto others, we deny and repress our feelings of guilt. Subconsciously, this makes us feel even more guilty because we know this judgment is not who we really are. The guilt we feel from judging others is then projected right back onto ourselves, and the vicious cycle beings again. This the judgment cycle.
I cannot overstate this: Judgement is the number one reason we feel blocked, sad and alone. Our popular culture and media place enormous value on social status, looks, racial and religious separation, and material wealth. We are made to feel less than, separate, and not good enough, so we use judgment to insulate ourselves from the pain of feeling inadequate, insecure, or unworthy. It’s easier to make fun of, write off, or judge someone for a perceived weakness of theirs than it is to examine our own sense of lack.
Judgment is an addictive pattern.
Judgement is an addiction response to deep-rooted trauma. The first trauma is the separation from love. From a spiritual perspective, choosing fear and separation over love dissociates us from our truth. We become fragmented in this state of separation and lose our connection to our inner being. In this disconnected state, we inadvertently turn our back on our inner being and become obsessed with an outward projection of who we think we are. Feelings of guilt and sadness wash over us, because deep down, we know we’ve turned our back on love. But we can’t fully understand our guilt, so we do whatever we can to avoid feeling it. This is how the cycle of judgment becomes and addictive pattern.
When we avoid our guilt and suffering by projecting it onto others, it’s a way of numbing out. Like any good drug, judgment will anesthetize our pain and redirect our focus. It can even get us high. Gossip is a great example. Whenever you get together with friends to talk about another person in a judgmental way, you’re avoiding your own core wounds. You’re using judgment as a drug to numb your own pain and get high on someone else’s. Gossip is especially nasty because it gives us the illusion that we’re bonding with others, when instead we’re just banding together to heap all our pain onto another person.
Gossiping can give us a buzz because it provides temporary relief from self-judgment and attack. We repeat a self-judgmental story on a loop all day long: I’m not good enough. Why did I make that mistake? I’m ugly. I’m not smart enough. And so on. All these self-inflicted behaviors are just another form of addiction. We unconsciously choose to judge rather than feel the pain beneath our wounds.
But notice I said that our self-judgmental story is played on a loop. That’s because it leads nowhere! Getting on the path to healing requires us to feel the discomfort—but we’re way too scared to go there, so instead we gossip or judge ourselves as the victim feels safer than facing our wounds. This I show self-judgment becomes an addiction.
The addictive pattern is further fueled by our denial. We long to feel better but deny that judgement is the problem. In fact, we see judgment as the solution, as a way of protecting ourselves. Our unconscious belief system keeps us stuck in the judgment cycle because we’re terrified of facing our own pain and suffering. We use judgment to protect ourselves from exposing our deepest wounds.
The repetition of judgment is habit-forming. If you repeat a behavior over and over, you strengthen your neural pathways. In time that behavior becomes second nature. The more you repeat the pattern of judgment, the more you believe in it. You create your reality with the thoughts you repeat and the beliefs that you align with. When judgment is your belief system, you’ll always feel unsafe, under attack and defensive. If you’re going to change the habit of judgment you need to change your core belief system. Our aim is to find our way back home—to find our way back to love.” (From Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein)
Stopping any self-destructive cycle and engaging in a truly honest personal inventory with the intention of self-betterment is difficult but virtuous. Asking the question: What do I really want from a friend and partner and then committing to developing those very qualities in oneself is, in my experience, the path to actually ending destructive relationships and beginning healthy ones.
Why? Well, as you begin to grow into healthy behaviors and ways of relating to yourself and other people, you will organically grow out of unhealthy patterns of behavior. Self-destructive behaviors will ebb, and the people in your life who were attracted to those qualities in you will migrate away from you because you will naturally also move away from them. Simply put, your orbits will change. This kind of growth is a process, and processes take time. It is not something that happens immediately, but it does happen when you commit to your own process of improvement and growth. After a time, you will see that destructive people have left your life. You may also be forced to make difficult decisions like ending relationships that were always bad for you or have become so over a period of time, but this is part of growing up and into living life with intention.
When you live your life with intention, you discover that you cannot make another person meet your needs; you cannot force another person to stop hurting you. You can only move away from them and choose to live your life among different people who share your values. And, this is essentially what people are emailing me about: How can I make my loved one share my values? How can I make the person I love stop valuing neglect or gaslighting or exploitation or selfishness or their own personal inertia? How can I make them see that what I value is better? You can’t. If you don’t share the same values now, then you likely never will. Take the temporary hit, gather your momentum, and keep going. You will find other people in the world who do share your values and will love you, and you will love them, too. You really will.
I don’t say any of this flippantly or without compassion. I have done everything that I’m suggesting, and I know all too well just how hard it is. I also know what life looks like “on the other side”. It is worth it.
I like to write useful posts, and I’m going to try to spin this “leaden” topic into gold as it were. I think I can do it.
I am certainly getting many opportunities to engage in circumstantial alchemy at my college. I have to confess something. I had a rather disheartening interaction with a fellow student yesterday, and, because I process through writing, I thought I would write about it.
I’ve not written a lot about my health issues (at least I don’t think I have). My personal view of my health journey has always been that I’m a healthy person fighting off illness rather than I’m a sick person fighting to be well. That paradigm has kept me optimistic and positive. Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with an unrelenting, chronic condition or many unrelenting, chronic conditions, there are trying days, and the illness(es) wins a few rounds. Truth be told, I’ve been a healthy person fighting off illness since early childhood. I’ve spent months that probably add up to a few years of my life in hospitals, and I carry multiple diagnoses and see four specialists outside of my primary care physician just to manage all of these diagnoses. Frankly, I became a bit discouraged because I wondered if I actually had one unknown condition that was the umbrella diagnosis manifesting as all these other health problems.
Last year, I ended up in yet another specialist’s office seeking more help because I suspected I had stumbled upon the X factor–the unknown umbrella diagnosis. I was, thusly, diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and it could very well be the foundational problem underlying every other health issue I have. It is also a giant pain in the ass. My doctor moved quickly to get the right protocols in place so that I would stop experiencing anaphylactoid reactions every few weeks, and she connected the dots between her diagnosis and the other specialists’ diagnoses. That was a huge relief. She indicated that it was indeed quite possible that I didn’t actually have all these other conditions; it may all be a mast cell disease at play. I was both shocked and awe-struck. I left her office with an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place. I now wear my Medic Alert bracelet all the time. Everyone close to me knows how to administer an Epi-Pen, and my very long list of allergens is up to date. I get monoclonal antibodies infused at the hospital every four weeks, take Gen 1 and Gen 2 antihistamines daily in addition to mast cell stabilizers. I follow a low histamine diet. I do my best every day. And yet, as most of us know, sometimes your best is not good enough.
Sometimes things still happen like stress or viral infections or food contaminants. Or, a nurse doesn’t administer an infusion correctly, and a mast cell activation event occurs that leaves you in bed for 10 days sending you to the ER for fluids, Zofran, and steroids. I didn’t know that could happen!
(Actually, two nurses mistakenly injected Xolair directly into my abdomen intramuscularly! Like they were rabies shots!!!)
It was while I was lying in bed last week feeling like I was run over by a truck and working myself into a nice, foamy lather over missing a week and half of classes that I comforted myself–“Your friends at school will get your notes for you. It’ll be okay. Your teachers know you. No, you’re not a slacker. You won’t fail out of grad school…”
So, finally, here is my confession. Here is the lead. When I was finally able to return to school, I greeted the people I knew and thanked them for putting notes in my mailbox. I approached a friend I’ve spent time getting to know, and her affect clearly indicated that she wasn’t interested in talking. I thought that she could be distracted, but then I realized that she was not interested in talking to me. I moved to end the conversation; my final remark was a movie recommendation and she almost scoffed, “Well, at least you did something positive last week.” Whoa.
Did you catch that? That’s shame right there. Whether she knows it or not, she was condemning me for being sick last week. For not meeting her criteria of engaging in “positive actions”, and embedded within that sharp retort was blame: “It’s your fault that you’re sick.” She then went on to ignore me–to distance herself from me–a perceived sick person. And, from an anthropological perspective, this is very mammalian–unless, of course, you’re an elephant.
“Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet.” (Scientific American)
I felt as if a stone were in my stomach for the rest of my class. Like my heart had dropped low down into me. I was disheartened and disappointed. I did not understand this social interaction at all until just moments ago as I was trying to write this out, but I see it now. There was no compassion, and I don’t say this because I feel entitled to it. I merely observe it.
Living with a chronic illness is…weird. It’s too easy to say that it’s hard. For me, it’s not hard exactly. I find it strange. There are days in which I feel perfectly fine. I don’t have any pain, and I’m almost not fatigued at all. Of course, my diet is very limited. I’m practically a vegan because I can’t tolerate most animal proteins particularly bovine meat and milk. I have celiac disease so that means no gluten, and I’m deathly allergic to quite a few fruits and nuts. And now what with the MCAS diagnosis, I have to pay attention to foods that are “histamine liberators”. There are days that it feels very complicated, but, for the most part, I don’t really mind. Every day that I don’t literally almost die from anaphylaxis, I’m truly grateful. I’m not one to think in terms of fairness or justice because that smacks of a victimization. Illness is part of the human experience. Is it fair? Well, I cannot answer that. Suffering is part of life.
What I have gleaned from my experiences with long-term, chronic health issues is empathy and compassion for people who suffer from, well, just about anything. To quote John Mulaney, adult life is so goddamned weird. We do not have the privilege of foresight. We don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do have the opportunity to cultivate a better personality with a richer substance and character that allows us to meet the unknown with courage and resiliency. And, what of this unknown? You may never get sick and stay sick a day in your life, but someone you love might. What’s more, they may do everything right and still never heal properly. Then what? Will you blame them? Tell them that they aren’t positive enough? Good enough? Strong enough? Dedicated enough? X enough? Will those well-meaning judgments most likely intended to spur them on to try harder actually help them? No. Why? If a person with a chronic illness could heal from trying harder to heal, then they would already be better. Trust me.
We are all human in the end and will shuffle off this mortal coil. Where then is the gold from this lead? I think that it is to be found in the how. How we live. How we treat others. How we view others. Even how we go about experiencing our diseases and disorders if we have a chronic condition. The one thing we are guaranteed is that we will all come to be intimately acquainted with suffering in either ourselves or other people. What then? Compassion. It is the only legitimate response. It validates, legitimizes, heals, and grows connections. Compassion mends the broken places and bridges the divides.
What of the people who blame, shame, judge, alienate, invalidate, and ostracize us for things that are no fault of our own? Well, sometimes we learn how to be better humans by observing others make mistakes.
If I wasn’t fully present to the reality of compassion and its utter necessity in the world before, I am now. I don’t feel angry at my fellow student. Oddly, I feel grateful. Her impoverished response acted as a mirror for me. For those of us who do deal with chronic conditions whatever they may be, we need to have compassion for ourselves because sometimes it’s in short supply. For me personally, I want to continue to develop compassion in my character and be mindful to exercise it. Unfortunately, you can count on other people to judge what they do not understand, and many people do not understand chronic illnesses particularly people who have been healthy for most of their lives. It is a lonely place when you are your most frequent and best advocate, but sometimes that is the road set before you until you find your tribe.
And, so, I will raise my voice today to join the other voices of compassion. There is absolutely no shame or reason to accept judgment if you have a chronic illness. Regardless of the overflowing fount of opinions in your life and the world at large, you deserve compassion, kindness, empathy, and a safe place to land where good friends will love you today. Just as you are.
Keep going, MJ
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama XIV,
As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground. And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.
My boyfriend was in town for two weeks. As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows. I really enjoy that aspect of relationships. So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park. My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything. The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.
It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor. He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido. He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer. So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose. I am not known for my athletic ability. I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory. I don’t usually like competing. I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles. I feel awkward most of the time.
As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win. I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him. Except I smoked him. By almost an entire body length. Everyone was shocked including him. I wasn’t. Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.
I was a competitive swimmer in my youth. Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer. A “prodigy”. I hate that word, but that’s what he called me. Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer. Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally. Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all. Thus began the pressure and the time commitment. I trained 8 hours a day. It was brutal. I swam because I loved it. I did not love training.
Something else, however, was going on. Mike was a pedophile. Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit. He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more. I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated. Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility. I quit training altogether that day. Without an explanation. My family was extremely angry and held it against me. The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word. My high school coach? He was livid. No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training. Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question: “Why would you throw away your gift?”
I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age. I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men. My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive. Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation. I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened. I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”
It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool. My daughters saw me swim. My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that. My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore. And, I remembered. I never even discussed any of this in therapy. It’s not something I think about. It feels like a gossamer memory. Like it almost happened to someone else. Almost.
Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years. What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”). Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales. At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death. His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father. What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting. He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader. Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.
But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters. I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:
“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.
Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.
Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.
At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.
This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.
The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous. Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.
This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”
The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)
I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well. As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts. I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.
After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me. In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person. I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers. For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard. The social injury was real as was the shame. They were missing information.
And this phenomenon has followed me. My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother. No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors. So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”. A “quitter” of relationships.
When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute. A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time. Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker. It is ludicrous.
What’s my point?
We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings. Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.
We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized. Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time. So, what do you do then?
Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”. I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high. Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching. I already had a father who had done that to me. I didn’t want to relive it in the pool. What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy. I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me. I left it behind and also left the experience intact. I was not a quitter. I was an overcomer. Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity. It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity. It helped me form a stronger sense of self.
We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned. In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us. Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love. In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first. And that means taking a very personal inventory. We may not be who we once were. It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.
“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”