Monday, October 18, 2010


During my senior year of high school, I took an English course entitled Great Books. We read some incredibly thought provoking books - primarily western philosophy - books that shape our politics and culture. We discussed them with the passion and zeal of 18 year-olds preparing for the idealised intellectualism of college life. Throughout the year, we knew that we were building up to the course's locally-famous final project: a presentation on the meaning life.
One day, early in the year, we were discussing Voltaire's
Candide in class and specifically discussing that core class question - the meaning and purpose of life. We must have been talking about the specific issue of isolation, when, without much thought, I blurted out a question that would come to be central to my definition of the meaning of my life for my final project and since: "if you lived your whole life, completely isolated and alone without ever interacting with another person, would your life have any meaning at all?" It was my variation on the classic "what is the sound of a tree falling in the forest?" or "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" questions. At the root of each is the essential question: are our lives of any consequence if we do not share our experiences and selves with others?
When I presented on my meaning of life project at the end of that year, I talked about Dante, Voltaire, Machiavelli, Frankl (who has obviously stuck with me) and all the other philosophers and thinkers we had read who had offered their own guides to creating a meaningful life. Using the Little Prince's home planet from the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry classic as my metaphor, with an accompanying "self portrait" that I had painted, I explained that my project centered around one question: does a life has any meaning at all, if lived in isolation. And my answer then was the same at 18 as it is now: our life's meaning is defined by the people we share it with.
And so, though I haven't always been fully conscious of it, building community is the purpose of my life. Professionally and personally, intellectually and emotionally, it is the locus of my meaning. I'm incredibly lucky that I get to do it as my day job, and hopefully will for many years as a Rabbi.
With all the terrible things that have come from my cancer experience, I can say definitively that I am never more acutely aware of this community-building orientation as when I am in treatment. I am so well supported and loved, that it is literally healing. I feel physically better after spending time with friends and family. I can never express enough gratitude for the affirmative experience of being surrounded by support, and for the constant reminder of the power of community.
I'll be back at Georgetown University Hospital on the 2nd floor of the Bles building, for cycle three of IVEG chemo therapy from October 25-28, and will hopefully know more about plans for the transplant in the next couple of weeks. I will report any news here.


Emily Pearl Goodstein said...

as always, beautiful. i am honored to be part of your community elissa. xxoo

Suburban Sweetheart said...

You are, in fact, one of the premier community-builders that I've ever met. (Does that sentence make sense?) You make people feel at home; I think it's probably part of why you & Emily get along so well.

I love you.

Ben Weyl said...

I think you've got it right.

And so Kurt Vonnegut:

"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."

juliacsmith said...

I always feel such a sense of energy and perspective after reading your posts. And this one makes me think a lot about purpose. Thank you for continuing to write. (And happy belated birthday again!)

Sammie said...

Loved indeed (and respected immensely)

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Harboring thoughts said...


Hope you are home now, and treatment went well. Sending you strength through cyberspace--from one of the oldest members of your community!
It is an honor to be a member of it. Your comments are always a pleasure to read and reflect upon.