I smiled when I read a recent post by my friend, Jon Katz, about why Passover is so meaningless to him. He recounted his family celebrating the holiday and holding the Seder, the big inaugural dinner, demanding that he join in the reading of the Haggadah, the basic text that’s read at that time. He didn’t wish to participate in reading about all the plagues and tribulations that afflicted the Egyptians. He cared about freedom, he had big questions around it, but there was no space for those questions in the home he grew up in.
I, too, have never cared for Passover. When Bernie was alive and this season would come around, I’d say, “You want to do something for Passover?”
He’d say: “ Nah, you?”
I’d say: “Nah,” and that was the end of it.
I came from a family that took Passover very seriously. My mother was exhausted from the cleaning, the cooking, and change of dishes. My father would put on a white robe and sit at the head of the table, and demanded that we, too, go through the entire Haggadah (which isn’t all about freedom at all). Young ages notwithstanding, we were locked into our seats for the evening and there was no space to ask the big questions about liberation.
The irony of engaging in such coercive behavior on an evening dedicated to freedom was never lost on me. On the one hand, you celebrate freedom, and on the other, your actual conduct is one of force and threats. The result is that I developed a personal narrative that was at odds with the narrative of my family, community, and culture.
For those who don’t celebrate Passover, think of Thanksgiving and the many people who feel extra anxious and depressed at that time. They probably experienced a personal Thanksgiving that was very different from our national myth about gathering with one’s family with good food, love, and giving thanks (not to mention the historical myth regarding sitting down with Native Americans when, in fact, many historians point to the first official Thanksgiving as celebrating the massacre of hundreds of Natives in Connecticut).
There are many who didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving like that, yet they get the sense that everybody else did. There’s a disconnect between their personal narrative of the holiday and the wider social narrative, popularized by media all around, and that disconnect brings on lots of stress and even dread towards the holidays. As my father used to say to me when I raised objections: “You’re not normal,” “There’s something wrong with you,” and worst of all, “No one else thinks like you do.”
Can you understand the loneliness of that?
I’ve often felt that I’d like to be part of the bigger Passover narrative, but I’ve never found a way to do that.
Often, when I think about the question: What is freedom for me?, I think of it as giving myself permission to feel what I feel, experience what I experience, connect with everything in my body without a need to defend or make excuses.
But is individual narrative all there is? Just as I was wondering about this, research came out that, for the first time in many years, less than 50% of Americans are members of a particular church, synagogue, mosque, or another religious center. Younger Americans find religious institutions and dogma very disappointing. In addition, they’re much more faithful to their personal experience of spirituality rather than someone else’s. Accessing the Internet as they do, they can put things together on their own, combine this with that, and create their own narrative about their relationship with God, the Unknown, and other people that feels more personal to them, more real, more right.
My question is: Is that enough? Is one’s personal narrative of liberation enough?
When I left home, I swore I would never go by anything but individual experience. It took some doing for me to get my feet wet, so to speak, in a spiritual tradition that might have different narratives from my own, but I was encouraged by the Buddha’s famous words to his followers: “Be a lamp unto yourselves.” This is the religion for me! I decided.
The irony, of course, was that I was joining a spiritual tradition that was actually training you to let go more and more of your personal narrative, or at least to hold it lightly. For the first five years of my training, I found myself going into my head again and again with its eternal outpouring of stories (Eve squarely at center, of course), and then thinking to myself: What! I have to let go of this? But I love it! It’s me!
It wasn’t; it isn’t.
My personal narrative shuffled, re-shuffled, and re-re-shuffled. I still have that narrative—and I know it doesn’t define anything.
Is it really enough to just go by our individual feelings and experiences? None of us are always present, none of us are always connected to the many intricate parts of our system. Why should we be when we have millions and millions of components in our body alone that get born and die and get born again and again every day? Some kind of disconnect is almost always there.
If all I go by is my own personal narrative and nothing else, how do I get surprised? How do you get astonished? Without a different kind of narrative—an enigmatic text, stories of people who behaved outrageously, and maybe best of all, a Zen koan—how do I leap?
And what kind of society is it that relies mostly on its members going by their personal narrative and little else?
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