Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Holding Two Truths (or, The Audacity of Cope)

Following the Talmudic principle that (s)he who is wise learns from everyone, while I was studying abroad in Israel during college, I participated in a program at a student center near campus known for their kiruv, attempts to make non-Orthodox Jews become Orthodox. They sent interested female students to a local women's Yeshiva, house of study, and set them up with a hevruta, study partner, to study their Orthodox perspective on sacred Jewish texts (at least those texts that they believe women are permitted to study). I was paired with the wife of one of the Rabbis, a young woman who had grown up a Reform Jew but had become Orthodox, a ba'al teshuva. I worked hard and learned a lot from her that semester. She asked me many
questions - some that deeply challenged, and some that helped to solidify, my previously held beliefs. She led me to see texts I knew in a different light, and exposed me to new material. But no conversation was more central to constructing my personal theology than one where we were talking about the revelation on Mount Sinai.

She had been pushing me for weeks about whether I believed that God gave Moses the whole Torah (and we're talking the whole Hebrew Bible and Oral Torah - the 10 Commandments, 5 Books of Moses, Books of the Prophets, Writings and Talmud) on Mount Sinai. I gave her what I thought was an enlightened, academic, progressive Jewish response: that I believed there was some moment of revelation on Sinai but that I also believed that these texts were written in their historic context by many authors, canonized in later centuries and millenia. That they have historic and cultural, as well as religious and moral, significance for the Jews and all of humanity. That the stories, even if they're not historical fact, have relevance and meaning for us today, and that faith didn't depend on exactly what and when the texts were written. When I was done with my lengthy reply, I looked up to see her face turning bright red, her mouth twisting with frustration. She literally lept to her feet as she shouted at me: "you either believe it's the word of God, or you don't! You either believe the laws were handed down from God, or you don't. And if you don't, then they mean nothing!" After a lengthy pause, she looked at me and asked simply: "what do you actually believe?"

I walked out in a bit of a daze. I had spent 11 years in Conservative religious school, 9 years at Reform summer camp, and was 3 years into college where I was very active in my Jewish community and pursuing a Judaic studies degree. No one, in all my experiences, had ever actually asked me point-blank, to take such a convicted stance. To really decide for myself whether the commandments actually came from God, and by extension, what role, if any, God played in my life. I wondered, w
ho was I, to aspire to become a Rabbi if I couldn't answer such a question?

In wrestling with the question and its many corollaries since, I have arrived at a couple of important touch-points. First, I have come to understand that she, as an Orthodox Jew, posed this question in black-and-white terms, as though there are only two possible answers. I am not a fundamentalist, and believe the beauty of my religious, ethnic and cultural Jewish experience lies in the shades of grey. Second, I am very grateful for the journey that the question has taken me on. On it, I have had many conversations with many wise people about their personal theology, and I am richer for it. One of these wise individuals reminded me that it is an essentially Jewish principle to hold two truths in our hands at the same time.
In other words, it took a long time for me to question the dichotomy implicit in her challenge and choose to ultimately reject it. In doing so, I have found a peace that has made it much easier to absorb and really listen to a multiplicity of beliefs without rejecting any on the basis that they aren't consistent with my own current understanding. By holding multiple truths at the same time - hearing the validity of the documentary hypothesis, while still feeling the sacredness in the stories and laws - I have remained open, my understanding constantly evolving. Holding onto multiple, simultaneous truths has been critically important in this, and every, aspect of my life.

Okay. I've gotten pretty Jewy here, and as I've said before, I promise to keep the content of this blog is very specific. So you might be wondering what all of this has to do with where my head is about this cancer situation. I'm getting there, I promise.

Recently I've had some viruses, symptoms and side-effects for which there have been no treatments, no pills, no solutions. And it's been getting really hard to repeatedly be told: "there's nothing we can do". But
I think my anxiety about this response runs much deeper than just the immediate discomfort associated with these (hopefully) temporary conditions. For months, maybe even years, the most persistent and loud fear in my head has been the obvious one.
The transplant was the last of my "conventional" treatment options. While I am being as positive as I can be, the question remains, it's answer implicitly contained within it;
what happens when there's nothing left to do? What happens if this is it? And I have only options to manage care, and an estimation of months, or years, with a deadline looming closer than the estimated 78 years my fellow Americans will have, what then?

In my experience these past few years, I've felt I could cope (with excellent care, insurance, and support) with any treatment, any pain, anything that I had to do in order to get better. The variety of aggressive treatment was, for me, only a small terror relative to the much larger fear during these repeated diagnoses.

In other words, it's not the diagnosis of the big "c" that's so horrifying, it's the potential prognosis of the big "d".

This possibility has loomed larger with every failed round of treatment. As the odds have gotten worse with each phase, I have taken in that information with sobriety, trying my very best to balance radical acceptance with a fierce commitment to my future plans. As often as I ponder these overwhelming questions about my mortality, I consider another set of questions, those that I would much rather be asking myself:
what if the scans are clear, and remain clear for the next five years? Who will I become? How will I transition to being a healthy person? How will I take the enormous lessons of this experience and apply them as I move forward, without also taking the enormous baggage? How will my body be permanently impacted, and what are the tools I have to mitigate the impact? What can I do to be stronger, better, wiser? What will and can my future hold?

And so I have a unique challenge in shaping the way I face lots of large and small decisions as I hang in limbo between these two possible futures. I struggle to figure out what the value of an experience or investment in myself - a vacation, a class, a special purchase - if I'm going to die anyway, or if I'm going to live to be 100. I wonder how to determine my priorities if I'm simultaneously planning for the long and short-terms. Do I study
Hebrew or watch Ellen, go for a salad or eat the chocolate, work on my website or
take a nap
There are a thousand decisions and choices, huge and quite small, that seem to hinge on what timeframe I'm operating on. I am trying hard to strike a hopeful and pragmatic balance.
I am considering all possibilities. I am holding both truths in my hands.

At the end of this week and beginning of next week, I will do the diagnostic PET and CT scans for the first time since halfway through SGN 35 back in March. With these post-radiation and transplant scans on the horizon, it's hard not to think about how they, like all their predecessors which have crescendoed in significance, are the most important ones I'll ever take. I will get the results, and have the opportunity to discuss them with my doctor next Wednesday, August 17, and will post an update here shortly after.


Emily Pearl Goodstein said...

This post is a stunning testament to your strength, beauty, and grace, Elissa! Thank you, also, for taking us back to your study abroad experience and weaving it into your current journey. xxoo

Erica F said...

Elissa, this is a beautiful post, which not only illustrates strikingly the issues you are grappling with on your own personal journey, but also poignantly evokes questions with which we all wrestle as we make difficult decisions. Thank you for articulating these puzzlers so eloquently in this post. I’ll be carrying its message in my head everywhere I go.

Gideon Bob said...

Very thoughtful..very true. I can't help with Sinai, but you have some good thoughts coming from the Rockies.

Betty (picture circa 1951) said...

I stumbled upon your blog a while back when I googled SGN-35. This was such a great post and I want you to know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Harboring thoughts said...

Cannot improve on anything Emily has already said--can just reiterate it all--especially the xoxo. Emily and Gideon--this is Gwen's mother, writing under my assumed name!

Christine Stone said...


Thinking of you often, xoxo Christine

Anonymous said...

Hi. I signed up about a month ago, after Amy C. at NCJW told me about you. I'm so glad I did. I am dealing with something similar (though not as serious), but I too have been thinking about how to spend my time -- if our time is limited (or even if it isn't), what are our highest priorities. No answers from me, but loved reading your thoughts. Best wishes, Margot

Jessica Braunfeld Turnof said...

I've tried to write this comment several times and just cannot find the words that best explain how your story relates to my family's own experiences. You are an inspiring and profoundly insightful woman and I am in awe of your strength and courage. Please continue to share your thoughts with us and know that I think of you all of the time.

The Big O said...

you are a tremendous woman, froman! thank you for making us all think so much -- not just about you, but together with you! xoxo

Elissa said...

Thank you for the kind comments!

Sammie said...

You continue to be in my prayers and thoughts. As we say in South Africa, Dan & I are holding thumbs for good news on the test front! (Audacity of Cope -- great title btw!)

Matt and Melanie Hildebrandt said...

Wow. You're such an amazing women and fabulous communicator. I have always been so impressed with you. Sending lots of love and big hugs.

Aaron said...

Elissa, I'm typing this from my lunch break in the hospital. My thoughts are with you. I'm unsure of my faith in G-d's direct role at Sinai, but I'm sure about my faith in your strength. You give me strength. I'll be waiting for your next post.