I’ve never been someone to embrace bumper sticker slogans about life. “You got this!” “God only gives you what you can handle.” In fact, I kind of hate them. I actually think it insults people who are suffering to gloss over their suffering with sports-like encouragement, or cheap theology. Life is more complicated than that, and people deserve to be heard, to be listened to.
As someone who’s experienced more than my share of emotional nadirs, I know how hard it is to pull yourself up, to go from fetal position to standing. There’s rarely been, for me, any kind of logical explanation regarding why I snap out of it, and get up and get going again. As a parent, I think it must have to do with having children, because there are things we do for our kids that we would never do just for ourselves. But then I think of how many people can’t and don’t manage that, for whom their kids don’t tether them to all that is good and hopeful and future-oriented.
Sometimes I think it’s just the turning of the clock that matters, the shifting from night to day. Darkness within and without can be a combustible combination, but there truly is something about daylight. It can feel, in a deeply cliched way, like a new beginning. But it can also feel like a rebuke; like the sun rising is in effect saying, “I’m up. Why on earth aren’t you?” Depending on how you take it in, daylight can be the motivation you need, or it can be the thing that makes you curl in on yourself even more.
My daughter, who recently began practicing mindfulness, described to me talking to her thoughts. I think that’s such a good thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ve been doing that my whole life. It’s how I deal with airplane turbulence and with other fears and worries. And it brought me back to what a neurologist told us twenty years ago about our newly diagnosed autistic son. ‘All of us talk to ourselves,” she said. “Some of us just do it out loud.” That truth has stayed with me. Perhaps it’s why I’m so attached to words. I see them as a way not only of getting myself up and over some of life’s speed bumps, but a way of connecting with others wrestling with similar challenges. Yet I also know that words can be a barrier, that they cannot bridge every divide. Since words are how we typically describe our experiences, and there are some experiences we cannot access, words can be the very thing that stand between human beings, no matter how much we want to connect.
Thinking about how words can connect us and also how they can keep us apart, I was brought back to my college thesis about language. I’m not sure I was entirely conscious of it at the time, but it was fundamentally a thesis about my father, z’l, and about how his experiences during the Holocaust, and as a survivor, left him forever trapped and forever apart. He could describe his experiences, he could tell us his stories, but we could never truly access his experiences through his words. We could hear the words and make sense of their meaning in a technical way, but we could never get inside those words to access their deeper, truer, felt meaning. And that was the double cruelty of surviving genocide. It wasn’t only about the direct losses–in my father’s case, the murder of his mother, his three brothers, his sister-in-law and his two- and four-year-old nephews–it was the imprisonment inside those experiences that was his fate for the rest of his life.
My father, z’l, is someone who got up every day, for whom I do think daylight mattered. But that daylight was always shadowed by something deeper, darker, and even more permanent and reliable than daylight. So while sunlight might be the best disinfectant, there are some things it can never, ever cleanse from us.