In the early years of the Hassidic movement, the Rebbe, the spiritual leader of a Hassidic community, would travel through eastern European towns and villages holding private audiences for his disciples in each place. In these meetings he would listen to their sorrows and sins and advise them. The following tale is told of the Mitteler Rebbe:
One day at midday, when hundreds of men crowded around outside waiting for a private audience, the Rebbe suddenly ordered that the doors be closed and ceased receiving visitors…After an hour or two passed, some of the senior disciples entered the house and heard the Rebbe weeping inside his room, pouring out his sorrows and reciting the psalms with great sincerity…
After some days had passed, one of the disciples asked what the reason for this incident had been. Immediately the Rebbe became very downcast and, after a moment, answered: “When disciples enter for private meetings and reveal their most secret and personal failings, each person as they truly are, each defect that the Rebbe is told about he must find first within himself, at least in some small quantity. It is impossible to teach the disciple how to fix (tikkun) this flaw or set it right until the Rebbe has first fixed it in himself. Only then can he give advice and instruction for this transformation. That day a man entered for a private meeting with me and his words distressed me. However, I was unable to find in myself even the smallest quantity of this defect, even in the most negligible amount. It then occurred to me that it might be an evil trait, hidden deep in my heart, that I am blind to! This realization shook me to my foundations and persuaded me to return to God completely with all my heart.”
We cannot hope to direct someone across a treacherous mountain pass unless we are already familiar with that terrain. If we don’t recognize the problem, or if we find ourselves unable to empathize, it is time to take a careful look in the mirror. In order to be truly complete human beings we must accept and “own” every part of ourselves. Even those parts that we would rather forget. Even our own deaths.
In today’s scripture reading, we get a glimpse of the radical empathy of Jesus. He knows that to fully enter the suffering of the earth and its inhabitants, he has to suffer and die. In order to lead people through the valley of the shadow of death, he has to learn the terrain himself.
W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” That’s our culture in a nutshell. Talking about death is uncomfortable. So we don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. The note to someone who is dying never gets written, the call never gets made, the visit is repeatedly put off. Or we do write the note, we do make the call, we do take the time to visit, but the anxiety is too much for us. Nervous, we say things like, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t talk that way. Think positive. It will be OK.” Those who are dying want to know that they are still the person they always were to us and that we still love them. Instead, we may get fidgety in the presence of the sick, or talk to others in the room as if the dying person is not there, or stand or sit a little too far away. Those who are dying want a taste of normalcy in the midst of all the craziness. They want to talk about the weather, talk about politics, talk about neighborhood gossip. In our state of upheaval, we try to force heavy conversations about life, the universe, and everything. We just don’t know any better.
What might happen if you practice radical empathy and open your heart to your own death? Invite the thought of death in. Will it bring sadness? Of course. The thought of all the loss, the thought of leaving; how this will impact the people depending on us, how the party will go on without us. Inviting the thought of death will bring sadness. Thinking about death may also trigger fear: fear of losing control, fear of the unknown. To the degree we allow ourselves to live with the thought of death, to sit on our very own grave and see ourselves from that perspective, our understanding and appreciation of what we have and of the life that is before us grows.
Sometimes I imagine how I might respond if I were told that I had a terminal illness. I think about how I would react if I were caring for my wife, refusing further treatment for my mother, saying goodbye to a friend. I think how I might feel, whether I could act, and what I might regret. I walk through the process, and as I do, I get very sad. This usually happens at night when I can’t sleep. Lying in bed, listening to my partner breath, hearing my children rustling around in their rooms, feeling the house creek. I roll onto my side and see the bright red numbers on my clock. Sometimes I go into the other room and turn on the TV, trying to avoid these thoughts – there’s nothing like late night television infomericals to numb deep thoughts. But sometimes, I tiptoe from from one room to another so that I can gaze upon my sleeping children. I listen to their rhythmic breathing, pull up the covers, rub their cheeks, and draw in their scents. Then I go back to bed, oddly fulfilled. Cold from the trek, I snuggle close to my partner, feel her warmth, love her enormously, and fall asleep. Here is my reminder that the end gives meaning to all that comes before. Even in the face of death, people’s worth and dignity remain. We affirm our worth and dignity by trusting the rhythm and flow of the life we are given. The poet May Sarton puts it this way:
But I am learning to trust deathJesus puts it another way: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death.
As I have trusted life.
I am moving
Toward a new freedom
Born of detachment,
And a sweeter grace—
Learning to let go.
I am not ready to die,
But as I approach sixty
I turn my face toward the sea.
I shall go where tides replace time,
Where my world will open up to a far horizon
Over the floating, never-still flux and change.
I shall go with the changes,
I shall look far out over golden grasses
And blue waters….
There are no farewells . . .