In the midst of brokenness

Krista Tippett interviewed the physician and medical educator Rachel Naomi Remen, and when asked about her growing up years, Dr. Remen spoke of her grandfather who was an orthodox Jewish rabbi and a student of kabbalah. I’ve read a few books on kabbalah, and find the Jewish mysticism to be challenging. My mind doesn’t always follow all of the stories and their meaning, and once, when sharing a book on kabbalah with colleagues, we decided that there are some mysteries that we don’t understand and that while we enjoy that perspective, we might not always share it. At any rate, in the interview, Dr. Remen told an ancient story about creation:

This is the story of the birthday of the world. In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. Then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident. [laughs] And the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness in the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people; to lift it up and make it visible once again and, thereby, to restore the inate wholeness of the world. This is a very important story for our times — that we heal the world one heart at a time. This task is called “tikkun olam” in Hebrew, “restoring the world.”

What I like about the story is that it sees every human being as belonging to a collective process of healing the world. Most of us are not called to make a huge difference. Rather each of us is called to heal the world that touches us, that is close to us.

It is easy to look at the troubles and problems of this world and come to the conclusion that we have too little power or too few resources to make a real difference. But in this story, each bit of light that is held up contributes to the total picture. A small contribution becomes important.

I like to think that making a small difference has value. It seems to be what I am able to do in so many situations in my life. I frequently come face-to-face with situations that I cannot fix and pain that I cannot eliminate. I visit someone who is living with cancer that will one day be the cause of his death and I cannot make the cancer go away. I cannot even make the pain go away. The best I can do is to sit with that person in his pain and reflect on the meanings of his life. I go to be with people on what they will often describe as the worst day of their lives, when they receive the news of the death of a loved one and I can’t make the pain and grief go away. All I am able to do is to remind them that they are not alone in their suffering - that there are others who are here when needed. So much of what I do in working with people is not about repairing the brokenness of the world, but rather recognizing a bit of light in the darkness.

Recently I have been visiting quite a few people who are experiencing chronic medical conditions. Their suffering can be eased with appropriate medical treatment, but their diseases are ones that never go away. They will not be cured in a conventional sense, but rather have to learn to live with conditions that others don’t experience. Some of these conditions require fairly significant changes in lifestyle, including changes in diet and exercise and accepting restrictions that didn’t used to be present. What I have come to recognize is that in these situations it is not just the individual who is affected, but an entire family system. When one person in a family has an altered died, all change their eating patterns. When one person has a change in activity level, all are affected. It reminds me of the story of all of the people in the world searching for and holding up their tiny bits of light.

The job of a pastor is searching for hidden light and holding it up to be seen. But this is really the job of every human being. What I do is not unique, but rather a way of demonstrating to others what they can do and what they can become.

A friend and colleague whose son died by suicide once commented to me that he was annoyed by people who tried to fix the brokenness or to make everything better. He didn’t want to be fixed and he still doesn’t. When you lose a child, pain is exactly what you should be feeling. Getting over the loss is not something you seek. This colleague continues to teach me about our role in the world. I am not the one who will fix everything. I am not the one who will discover the cure. Rather I cam called to sit with those who suffer and to share with them the realities of brokenness and occasionally also share the bright light of hope and peace that come in the midst of all of the brokenness.

Dr. Remen teaches that the practice of medicine is like that as well. Medicine rarely is able to cure a disease. What it can do is to lessen a small amount of human suffering. Healing is not curing, but rather connecting with the mystery, courage, heroism and love of the individual in the midst of a medical condition.

Today is a good day to look for the small pieces of light in the midst of all of the brokenness.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!