In Suffering: Take Heart

Some of you might know that I recently became ill on an airplane. It was, I guess, a kind of extreme motion sickness. As my sister, who was here last week, can vividly attest, I have been prone to car sickness my whole life. But what has happened in recent years is that sometimes my motion sickness gets triggered in the van or car ride to the airport. I foolishly ignore it, thinking it's nothing, but instead it incubates during the flight until it is much, much worse. And by the time that happens, I am generally too delirious to quite understand what is going on.

And so it was on my way home from Chicago in June. Three hours into the flight I became ill. And when I say "became ill" I mean it as a euphemism. I "became ill" on the plane, luckily making it to the restroom in time. I had a naïve hope that that would be the end of it, but when we began our turbulent descent, I knew I was wrong. I held it together through landing but as others deplaned I grabbed my second air sickness bag, lunged into the restroom, and became ill again. A kind of insistent ill, a coercive ill, where all you can do is surrender. 


I emerged back into the empty plane, picked up my backpack, thanked the worried flight attendants, and tottered up the jetway. As I entered the busy terminal, I realized the light and noise and movement of people were too much, and all I could think about doing was lying down and closing my eyes. So I fled the people, like a cat finding a dark place to die, and lay down on the floor, tucked away.

At some point I remembered to call Oren and say I couldn't get on the bus, and that I wasn't even certain how I'd get out of the terminal. Oren got to work sending a cavalry of San Francisco friends to find me. Meanwhile I wasn't feeling any better; in fact I was getting worse again. I knew that if I sat up, I would become ill. And I realized with shock and regret that I had left the plane without grabbing a new airsickness bag.

My fevered brain struggled to figure out a way out of the predicament. I called to a passerby and explained I was ill and asked if she could go somewhere and get me a bag. Because getting a bag was the only next step I could imagine, the prerequisite to any other plan. She said yes and walked away but, like Noah's raven, never came back. I called to a second person that I needed help and could he get me a bag. Off he went, returning with water (which was thoughtful) and a nut bar against dehydration (which was far beyond anything I could assimilate either mentally or physically). And – no bag. 

But he asked if he should get me some help. I said yes, and so shortly, up marched a skycap with a wheelchair, cheerfully instructing me to hop in. I, still flat on the ground, said, "If I get in the wheelchair, I will become ill. Can you please just hand me an airsickness bag?" 

"Oh no," he said, "we don't have airsickness bags." 

"Well, can you get me one?" 

"No, those belong to the airlines," he replied, and launched into an excursus on the division of duties and materials between airline and airport, an explanation so lengthy and unwelcome that I thought I would lose it right there listening to him. When he had finally exhausted his topic, he asked if he should call paramedics. 

At first I said no. I knew what this was. I knew it was something that would eventually get better. So I felt undeserving of a higher level of help. But then I took stock: I was lying on the floor of an airport, after all, unable to move. "Yes, call the paramedics," I said.

After words with his dispatcher, he told me he would wait with me. Still desperate, still foreseeing what could happen at any moment, I begged him. "You see the Peet's Coffee over there? Could you just go and get me an empty cup? Because when the paramedics move me I will become ill. Just an empty cup please!" He thought it over for a moment and agreed. Off he walked. My half-opened eyes followed him across the terminal. He nearly made it to Peets, then turned around and walked all the way back. He looked at me with his earnest, helpful face, and asked, "What size?"

So maybe that's enough of the story. Maybe you don't need any more details. You don't need to hear about the cup – alas, a clear plastic cup – from Peet's. Or about the paramedics offering play-by-play commentary on every humiliating moment that followed. Or about the wheelchair rattling on the uneven tiles. Or the luggage or the car ride or the recovery.

Enough. I'm not telling you this story for you to feel sorry for me, because there's no need. It was a passing thing. Everyone in this room has experienced things as bad and many here have experienced and continue to experience much worse. There are members of this community who are not here tonight because they are experiencing something worse right now.

But this experience was a thing. It constituted what in retrospect I see as a discrete, finite, observable unit of suffering. One that I can now hold in my hand and examine. And here I'm using "suffering" not in the Buddhist sense, but in a more generic sense. This was a contained episode of pain, physical distress, trauma. 

I look back at it. I hold it in my hand and turn it over and over to see what I see. I see that while it makes a fun story, it was not fun. It was not noble. Or romantic. Or spiritually elevating. 

I look back and realize that in that moment, all I could do was be. I couldn't talk or text or think. I became the Universe. The Universe was 5'11" long and shaped like me. I was all there was. I was me being ill. And me being the Universe. And the Universe experiencing being ill. I was a complete unity of body and soul, individual and whole, supine on grey carpet under florescent lights. 

It was a kind of hineini moment. Hineini – the complete presence and complete surrender that Abraham and Moses embodied when they were called by God, and responded with the single word hineini, "here I am." We talk in the Jewish world about hineini moments, experiences of pure presence. But it was a revelation to discover that hineini need not be the product of enlightenment. In fact hineini might be more likely to happen in a time of such distress that surrender and complete presence are your only options.

It took me some days to feel like myself again. I felt vulnerable. And I felt sad. I felt sad because I began to think about the people who come to see me in my office because of, or in anticipation of, their own suffering. People who are about to enter chemo and will soon feel like I was feeling at the airport. And they come to me for spiritual support, since that is what I am purportedly qualified to offer. Sometimes I suggest that they imagine rallying Divine support, perhaps through inviting angels to accompany them to chemo sessions. Or sometimes we pray together or develop special blessings to offer.

This is what I do and people are grateful. But I became sad realizing that as I was lying on the floor of the airport for well over an hour, a prayer never crossed my lips. Not a single angel was invoked. Not a word to God in any form, gender or language. It wasn't that I considered it and decided against it. It simply never occurred to me. I was too wrapped up in breathing my next breath. 

And this realization was hard. I felt like a failure. Like a fraud. How hard I've tried to develop a spiritual life, and to model one, and when I needed it most, there it went, out the jetway.

I called a trusted teacher and told her how I hadn't thought to employ a single tool in my rabbinic toolkit. She said, "But you're not expected to do that when it's you who is in trouble. It's not something people can do for themselves." 

And she reminded me of a text that we'd studied together years ago. It's a story from Talmud [Berakhot 5b] about Rabbi Yochanan – a famous rabbi known for his intellect, his great good looks, and his ability to speak the language of trees. In the story, Rabbi Yochanan was visiting a sick student of his. He asked the student, "Is your suffering dear to you?" And here "suffering" maybe does have more of a Buddhist sense. Yochanan didn't ask if the student's illness was dear to him, but rather if his suffering was. Was the student so trapped in the meaning and identity arising out of his illness that he could not let go of it? The student answered that no, his suffering was not dear to him. Rabbi Yochanan then bade him to take his hand and he stood him up out of the bed. It doesn't say that Rabbi Yochanan cured him of his disease. But something changed that allowed the shedding of some of the student's suffering.

Fast forward in the story, and now Rabbi Yochanan himself is ill. His own teacher, Rabbi Chanina, comes to him and asks if his suffering is dear to him. Rabbi Yochanan says no, and Rabbi Chanina takes his hand and also raises him up out of the bed.

Talmud then asks the question: if Rabbi Yochanan had the ability to raise up his student, why didn't he just do it for himself? And Talmud answers its own question: 

אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים

"A prisoner cannot free himself from prison." In other words, suffering can be a kind of prison, and a suffering person cannot be expected to unlock their own shackles. 

This is why in Jewish tradition we have the custom of bikur cholim, of visiting the sick. According to Talmud [Nedarim 39b], the simple act of visiting, of being present, removes 1/60th of the sick person's pain. Simply from visiting, from being present, from witnessing. 

And just as a sick person's suffering can only be lifted with another person's help, so I felt my teacher lifting some of my continuing suffering in a way that I hadn't been able to do for myself. 

There was still another lingering element to reckon with. I felt embarrassed. Not in front of my teacher but in front of the angels. Because at this point in my life I take angels more seriously than I did when I was younger. I don't have a big theology or cosmology about it; I recognize that angels serve as a way of experiencing the Divine when the Divine is too big or impersonal or abstract to get what you need. I don't have big set ideas about angels. I don't require them to have physical morphologies or literal dimensions, personalities or plot lines. I am open to them being natural forces or human intuitions or moments of expanded consciousness or simply abstract qualities – love, compassion, care, protection – which in our imagination get embodied and beautifully robed in angelic garb. I'm open to all of that. But even after all those disclaimers, let me say that I do in fact invoke angels. I call them in at bedtime as is our Jewish custom. I call them in at the beginning of a journey or a difficult project, when I'm wrestling a slippery sermon, or when I simply need some extra courage. 

But in that moment on the airport floor I hadn't done it. I did not call out. And now, I felt like if I invoked angels for anything, I would be exposed and judged for my faithlessness. 

My teacher suggested that I not assume; that I ask them instead. So we quieted for a moment. I closed my eyes and before I could consciously formulate a question, I heard the words, "It's okay, we were there anyway." I heard the words clearly, in my ears or maybe it was in my head. "It's okay, we were there anyway." I felt tears of relief. Relief to know that Divine love, or the Universe's care, is not conditional, and our suffering is not a test of faith. Illness happens, pain happens. And our angels stand by us whether we call on them or not.

So why tell you about all of this at all? We are living right now in a time of great suffering – of global suffering. Our Earth is ailing and we are not separate from it. Through our roots, in our bones, in our dreams, we hear the planet's calls of distress. It colors our own experience of everything. It fuels our grief. It hastens our anger. It drives us to compassion or to the opposite. Whatever pain we already feel in our bodies or in our relationships or in our body politic – that pain is heightened by the relentless groan of the suffering Earth. 

But in this suffering there is the possibility of hineini moments – moments of radical presence. Not for the fun of it. But to connect us deeply with the Universe that we are. To feel its needs and its instructions. So that we can be empowered to act courageously on the Universe's behalf. So that we may choose life, when there is a choice to be made. And so in the face of suffering we can drop in and say hineini. Here I am. I am the Universe too.

And in this suffering there is the possibility of supporting each other. Of being present, bearing witness, and offering a hand. Not to try to fix it, not to try to distract a suffering person away from it. But simply to be present. And as we learn, that in itself can help us lift each other's burden. We can relieve 1/60th of the pain that we see. Which might not sound like a lot. But it's not nothing.

And we can feel confident that even in our own moments of despair, in moments that we can't see our way out of this box that we're in, the angels are there anyway. 

If we are the Universe, then we are the Universe in the form of someone lying on an airport floor. And in the form of someone at a border crossing. And in the form of an animal fleeing extinction. But we are also the Universe in the form of perky skycaps, nimble paramedics, poets, painters and dedicated helpers of every sort. We are the Universe in the form of help. 

So take heart. We've got this. We have each other. And the Universe has us. And the angels? Well, they've been here all along. Just look around.

I am so grateful for conversations with Rabbi Shohama Wiener and Rev. David Parks. And to Mick Sheppard and Jake Pierce, the San Francisco cavalry.