Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Title of Your Life

Over dinner last week my seventeen year old daughter, Bess, made an interesting observation. She said, "All people have stories but only few have a story." What she meant to say is that while all of us have lives full of incidents and experiences its rare to find persons whose life tells a single tale with a common underlying theme.
Is it true? Do most people not have a single story in which the variety of the stories of their life is contained?

In the parsha this week we begin the story of Avraham. To tell it will take us through much of the next three weeks. The readings share with us many episodes in Avraham's life from the early years and unto his death. How do we experience what we are being given? Is it indeed a story, singular with many chapters or are we being given a multiplicity of vignettes about the same person but otherwise distinct and unrelated?

Even more significantly when we speak of the Jewish people and our story, is it indeed a single story, expressed through many passages? Or is it in reality not one story but many, millions of stories, belonging to the same people but otherwise independent and unrelated?

In posing the later question whose answer is clear, when we speak of Israel's journey we are speaking of the oddessy of a nation where each episode is part of a singular story now transpiring over some four thousand years, we can also answer the earlier question, about our father Avraham. Yes Avraham had many experiences. Yes, Avraham lived large and invested in life so that he had a wide varierty of encounters and challenges. But the stories are not isolated and self contained. They make up a larger whole, the story of Avraham! We who have the gift or hindsight, may see that all the stories have in common the 'testing of Avraham'. His stories contain ten trials, each meant to bring out Avraham's personal excellence as a human being and man of faith. While superficially the stories seem isolated, with perspective we can see they are all aspects of a single tale.

Ok so we know the Jewish People have a single story and so too with Avraham. But what about us? Is my daughter right? Is it so that for most of us our lives are fragmented and while we have many stories their is no singular over-arching story that binds them?

I think not. I believe that not only do our people have a single story and greats like our father Avraham, but each of us has a meta-story made up of the various chapters of our lives. If we reflect on our experience we will see that their is a unifying thread to our lives. The problem is that we tend to be so busy living in the moments of our lives that we can't get the distance to see how our life is like a musical work composed of theme and variation, always coming back to the same core elements of meaning.

When facing old age and the end of life, mental health professionals talk about the importance of doing life review. Life review is a process of looking back on the journey one has had and finding the story within the stories. Life review creates an opportunity to claim one's journey as an integrated whole, with its good and bad, ups and downs, and ultimately to bless ones own life so one can let go and die with peace. In doing life review most people are surprised at how the life they lived and thought was disjoint and disconnected actually can be spoken of and seen as a single tale.

I can tell you for my own experience of having performed hundreds of funerals and having delivered an equal number of eulogies that one can find red threads to even the most fragmented of lives. If one listens to the stories one can find the story that unites them.

Ah but you say what difference does it make whether you have a vision of your life as a single story or not? Let me tell you a beautiful story I heard of the Piezeczna Rebbe.
A man came to the Piezezcna knowing he was going to be transported to a Concentration Camp. He knew he would have little opportunity their to perform mitzvot, to learn, to do hesed. He asked the rebbe what could he do to give his life meaning in the Camps. What mitzva could he perform? The Rebbe told him, "When you are in the Camp go over to every person you can, as many as possible, and ask them to tell you their story."
The Rebbe did not tell the man to ask for their 'stories'. No stories won't do. Telling stories without an underlying them will not help . But telling the story will.Telling the key story that is manifest in the particulars of life enables us, even in the darkest of times, to feel alive.We may lose everything but in having our story we retain ourselves. If we lose our story we have lost it all. Our story is core to who we are. To lose the story is to lose our self.

We, each of us, have a story. In the end, our lives with all its complexity, is a single tale. The work for us is to come to recognize that story. We need to try and put all the particulars of our experience into a single framework so as to reveal its underlying meaning and purpose.

The question we might ask ourselves is "If our life was a book what would the title be?" Knowing that title gives direction to our lives and makes each experience,no matter how difficult, bearable, since it is not a random confrontation with adversity but part of the book of us and integral to who we are.

Shabbat Shalom

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