Saturday, December 15, 2012

broken hearts, broken lives

We, as a nation, as a world, have experienced one of the worst tragedies that we could ever imagine. I know so many feel as I do: while I don't know anyone personally at Sandy Hook Elementary School, anyone with an ounce of compassion in our hearts are also in a state of grief. We struggle for the right words of comfort, enter conversations about the need for gun control, but through it all, many of us (meaning me) wonder what can we do to help.

There are constructive ideas all over the internet, discussions about gun control, the need for better mental health care, and the isolation that exists in our society today. These are all good, needed discussions, and constructive changes needs to take place - but for now, what I want to share is different.

I'm reading a book I picked up quite by chance at my local library bookstore, My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. I'm amazed that a something written with such depth of feeling could end up in a library discard pile, but then again, I never would have found it otherwise, so that alone was my personal blessing. 

This is a narrative about touching lessons learned from people. Dr. Rachel has been working with people with terminal illnesses for more than thirty years, and has lived with Chrohn's disease for more than forty years. I find her writing to be sensitive and full of something that seems to be lacking in much of society today: wisdom.  Her book shares some of the wisdom that she's learned from patients and others who touched her life in some other way, including her Orthodox Jewish grandfather (who calls her Neshume-le, which Dr. Remen tells us means "little beloved soul.")

At the start of the book, she writes about how her grandfather was the one person in her life who tenderly shared his faith in God by telling her stories from the bible. (the bold highlighting is mine.)

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. in this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. These people are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.
"Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?" I asked, certain that he would say "Yes." But he shook his head. "No, Neshume-le," he told me. "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them."
It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered only was the capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. "And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world," my grandfather said. "It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so."
And then she writes about her thoughts, responding as a young child about such a great responsibility that must be on the actions of the Lamed-Vovniks.
"How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "What do they have to do?" My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. "Ah, Neshume-le," he told me. "They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."
Without compassion, the world cannot continue.

In a society that places so much value on action, it is comforting to me to think that our compassion links us in the suffering of the people in Newtown, CT, and even defines us. For me, as one who feels helpless in this time of tragedy, I feel - well, more human, in that thought.

Sandy Hook Elementary School - and all who have left this world too soon - we weep for you.

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