Even from the black depths of pain and despair, life can hand out valuable lessons in compassion, wisdom and love.
Last year, on a lonely rural section of Highway 17B in the Catskill Mountains, I nearly died. The highway’s only claim to fame is that it is on the way to Bethel, New York, the site of the original Woodstock festival. I was running errands in the early morning when a car coming in the opposite direction swerved into my lane at 45 miles per hour and hit me head-on. It was on that road where my life changed forever. It was on that road where I learned to deal with daily, severe pain and reclaim my life from the broken glass and twisted metal that lay strewn over the blacktop. It was on that road where I took down the spiritual wisdom I had learned off the bookshelf and downloaded it into my life. If ever there was a time to find out what sustained my inner core, this was it.
I vividly remember lying in the local hospitals emergency room before being medivaced to Westchester Medical Center. I wasn’t a pretty picture. Firemen had pried me out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Dried covered my face, teeth and lips, the result of the impact with the air bag that saved my life. A torn pants leg revealed a smeared mixture of and dirt oozing out of a deep gash in my knee. The force of the collision had rammed my femur out of its socket. My pelvis shattered into nine pieces, I was broken in half. I had not yet received any painkillers and was suffering incredible, mind-bending pain. I prayed to pass out like the guys who got shot in the Westerns I used to watch as a kid. But this was no movie.
The local hospital wasn’t equipped to perform major trauma surgery. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m Humpty Dumpty, and they can’t put me back together again.” Soon I was wheeled into a private room where a doctor would reposition my femur. I gritted my teeth and said, “Doc, isn’t the pain going to kill me? What if it doesn’t go right back in?” He simply said, “I have to get it back in. We can’t transport you until I do.” Without warning, the doctor jumped on my gurney, grabbed my leg, and shoved it toward what was left of my pelvis. The pain slammed into me so hard that I let out a horrified scream. The femur didn’t go back in. Crying and moaning, I whimpered, “I thought you’d give me painkillers before doing something like that.” He looked at me in astonishment.
“You havent been given any painkillers?” They quickly shot me up with Valium and Demerol and repeated the procedure. This time my leg went back in with a loud pop. At that moment, I was still angry at the doctors insensitivity, but another part of me was grateful for his fearless skill in taking the first step toward putting me back together. I took his hand and said, “I want you to know how grateful I am for your skill and courage. But damn it, don’t ever do that to another patient.” He smiled warmly, a bit embarrassed, and apologized.
Right there, in that emergency room, I decided that no matter what struggles lay ahead, I would give thanks to every person who attended my broken body. I was going to honor every act of kindness with words from my heart. Before I went under the knife, I told my wife how much I loved her and our kids. I also asked her to forgive me for any stone left unturned and to tell the kids the same. When we said good-bye, I did not know if I was going to survive. The doc told me he was very optimistic, but he also said, “In all my years as the main trauma physician, I have never seen anyone as badly shattered as you. You will make it, but it will be touch and go.” So I told her how much I loved her. From the moment we met, I knew she was what the Talmud calls my zivug rishon, my soul mate. If I was going to die, I wanted to affirm our love first. The Talmud hints that the love of a soul mate is something that goes beyond personal identities. As I emerged from surgery, she was there waiting for me and holding my hand. The sages got that one right. In the ensuing weeks I was totally helpless and in excruciating pain. I had lost so much I looked like Count Dracula was my nightly visitor. My stitched and stapled wound stretched twenty-three inches from the top of my hip down my thigh. At the bottom was a big drainage hole dug out of my flesh, open and oozing. Nine three-inch screws had been drilled into my pelvic bones. Metal plates held me together. I would spend the next seven months lying flat on my back for twenty-two hours a day. The morphine drip kept me in a perpetual fog as I lay catheterized and unable to turn over. I couldn’t sit up or wash myself without assistance. It took four people to move and bathe me. I needed someone to help me do everything. I could not cross my legs. I could not lie on my side. All the time I was fighting incredible pain, and worst of all, I did not know if I would ever walk again.
My total helplessness brought many moments of spiritual vision. I took comfort in knowing that others who faced great challenges down through the ages encouraged me to hold fast and not give up. But I won’t kid you; I often heard the voice of despair. It would whisper that it’s just too painful to go on. I made up my mind to embrace the few things I was able to do as the fullness of my life. The more I lived in the moment, the less I worried and the less I cried. Old teachings took on new meaning. I particularly savored a saying from two great sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazer: “Even if the sword is on your neck, do not stop yourself from praying for compassion and mercy.” My body felt like a hundred swords were sticking into it. Every movement hurt. Calling on mercy and compassion was very comforting. In my prison of pain I rarely felt alone.
There were times late at night when I found myself quietly marveling at my predicament. For years I had given so much advice about these kinds of matters to so many, and now I was finding out if I could take my own advice. It was a wonderful role reversal. I was no longer the caregiver; now I was the one to whom care was given. The postoperative rehab room is the first stop for the severely wounded. This became my new world, and its inhabitants my new community. Some of my new companions were amputees. Others were literally gutted and re-sewn with scars that beat my huge wound. There were head-trauma folks, and crushed-limb people like me. My new teachers were Pain and Suffering. Let me report to you that in crisis there is no such thing as transcendence. Anyone who tells you different is playing you for a huge joke. Suffering is very real, and fear is its sidekick. Fear is a sneaky % C stealing away precious moments of your life. Much of my time was spent devising ways to deal with it more effectively. For me, after weeks of work, I finally tossed fear away into a corner. The secret was not to fight the pain, but to embrace it. Once I did that I started finding my strength.
No One Said It Was Going to Be Easy
If I could distill all the great writings on suffering and pain down to a few words, I would simply say that suffering and crisis transform us, humble us, and bring out what matters most in life. Accidents open us to a world of meaning. Still in all, it is a hell of a way to be blessed. But that is why these things are called “accidents” because no one in his right mind would ever order up a serving of blessings and meaning this way! For years I used to marvel at how the Talmud points out that just as we bless the good, so too do we bless the bad. I always found that a profound concept. It is only now, when I find myself stretched between the good blessing and the bad blessing, that I understand how important it is to surrender to the depth of my life. Nothing that happens is to be ignored. Everything requires attention and mindfulness. There are spiritual gems to be recovered from the difficult challenges. Or as the great Hassidic master Reb Dov Ber of Mezrich once said, “Sometimes we have to sift through the ashes to find a single spark.”
Pain Opens the Heart
How strange it was to have something so brutal bring out so many deep changes in my life. There is, of course, a deep mystery at work here, which the words of Chesbon Hanefesh helped to make clear: “By failing to accept your suffering, the pain you feel will be much more acute and harsh.” From the beginning I simply accepted that where I was was where I was meant to be, and this freed my mind up to pursue my healing. It opened new doors to the spiritual realms, new doors to contemplation and meditation. There is a deep connection between broken-ness and Spirit. When you suffer, it is not just the body that gets broken — so does the heart. It is never easy looking at life and seeing your dreams vanish, hopes disappear, and plans get more than put on hold.
The flip side of being helpless is that there are only a few avenues open to you. As I lay in the hospital and later in my hospital bed set up in our living room, everything I was accustomed to was gone. No plans, no dreams, no visions of what I was going to do and be next. Believe me, I am a very driven person and to have all of that just pulled away was startling. To heal, I knew I had to be fully in the present and drop everything I had thought about what I was going to be doing with my life. Letting go was poignantly sad. But it was not depressing. Rabbi Scnhuer Zalman said it clearly when he wrote: “A broken heart is not the same as sadness. Sadness occurs when the heart is stone cold and lifeless. On the contrary, there is an unbelievable amount of vitality in a broken heart.” And that is the truth. There is and was in all this pain and sadness a lot of vitality. Why is this so? What else is there to do in circumstances like this but to turn your life over to God? My dependency opened me to the recognition that I was dependent on God. Where else could I hang on?
In The Middle is Mystery
In the middle of the mystery of pain, there are precious jewels to be harvested. There is incredible beauty and poignancy in discovering the love in this world. I may have gotten pain dealt to me in spades, but I also can tell you I have gotten more love and compassion poured over me, through me, and around me than I ever knew existed. I was often asked by the hospital staff why I seemed to be happy most of the time. They would say, “Look at what happened to you. How come you still smile?” In reality, their question was not directed at me, but at themselves. They were asking, “Would it be possible for me to be happy if I were in Yehudah’s shoes?” I suspect that everyone harbors such thoughts. We all wonder how we are going to respond to a crushing crisis. We all wonder if it will break us. These are natural questions. We wonder, too, about how we will handle pain. And beyond that, we wonder if we really will be able to make amends and straighten out our lives if we are caught in the middle of a buzz saw.
The Three Hurdles
There are three major hurdles to overcome in crisis: dealing with pain, attitude, and cleaning up the heart. Pain management is a huge issue in the hospital or for anyone who suffers from chronic, debilitating pain. I could write a book on the “pain wars” that I had with my doctors. But briefly, if you do not get proper pain management, it is extremely difficult to heal or keep your wits about you. Without it, life is a living hell. When the pain volume is turned up high, all you can do is writhe, cry, and pray for sleep. Good pain management is essential. At the same time, however, I don’t want to imply that if your pain is managed, your life will come together. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sadly, we live in a world where we are so afraid of suffering’s teachings that we organize our lives around anesthetizing the messages of our anxiety and pain. Many of the folks I got to know on the trauma ward ran back into their caves of denial as soon as they got their meds and the pain went away. There is physical pain and there is psychic pain. Don’t confuse the two and think that when the physical pain goes away you will be all right psychically. The longer we avoid dealing with our lives, the more trouble we find at the end. Issues not attended to can come roaring out like a devouring monster.
Where your attitude is, so be you. Where your attitude is, so be your consciousness. No matter what has happened in life, you have the capacity to choose how you want to be. Allowing yourself to be guided by your core values unlocks a profound spiritual blessing — the blessing of living in the moment with grace, dignity, warmth, kindness and compassion. I am quite certain that the fear of changing our attitude is the fear of the unknown. While no one likes the crappy side of each of our lives, it is what we know. It is easier to delude ourselves into thinking and identifying with what we know than to risk being what we can be. The thought of really changing is downright scary for most folks. The issue, when I am caught up in one of the chain-saw massacre cycles of life, is what course and direction do I choose to take? After pain management, what precisely do I do to learn, change, transform and grow? What in my life can motivate me? In my case, I made a conscious decision to stay with my core, to let its inner light be my beacon. And most of all, I was motivated by my children. I wanted them to see what was possible in a time of crisis. I wanted them to know that their father deemed it worthwhile, even in the middle of hell, to be a person who does not let go of what is precious in life. But I would never want anyone to think that attitude equals perfection or transcendence or any of the other gobbly goop that passes for New Age spirituality. Don’t think there won’t be times in the middle of a crisis when you won’t literally break down. I certainly have, and I am not ashamed to say so. I belong, after all, to the school of the spirituality of imperfection.
Wisdom for the Heart of Life
Finally, let me share with you some of the wisdom teachings that are my spiritual companions in life. Teachings that are for the ages are alive to me. They are imbued with spirit and I carry them as living charges of pure wisdom inside my consciousness:
“Suffering is meant as a teacher to anyone who sees it or hears about it. The suffering of anyone in the world can serve as a tool to learn lessons that will elevate us.” (Toras Avraham, p. 54)
“Do not worry about what might possibly go wrong the next day. One never knows what will occur. Perhaps tomorrow you will no longer be in this world and you will have worried about a world that is not yours.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b)
“If things do not go the way you wish them to be, you should then wish them to be the way they are.” (Magadolai Hatorah Vachssidus, vol. 20, p. 107)
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not of talk and meditation, but of right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks that it constantly sets before each individual.” (Viktor Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning.)
If we realize that life is asking us to respond with our core values, we awaken to the precious beauty of our life and of others. We abandon spiritual practice and embrace life. We do not worry. We do not flee. We act with grace, strength, and compassion. We act even with imperfection — but we act. Spirituality born out of crisis is grounded in the personal. I truly believe that to be the case. Don’t fool yourself and think that Spirit is somewhere else, in other worldly experiences, in great rushes or ecstatic visions. Surviving my nightmare has taught me that we are all a lot better off when we understand that the Holy is in our hands and in our deeds. I suspect that was King David’s message when he wrote the simple statement, “May goodness and compassion chase me all the days of my life.” If we hunger to live the spiritual, we hunger to serve and to give. Life’s deepest experience is the joy that fills our hearts when we love and give to others. Ask anyone in the middle of battling a catastrophic illness. Or survey all my friends from the acute trauma ward, and they will tell you they live to give a halting hug or to speak a word of grace to another. The irony can no longer be lost on me. When crisis explodes in our midst, what we yearn for is a clue to our spiritual life.