I walked past the tree that had arched and almost fallen to the ground, its top branches caught in the mesh of other trees. A survivor? I asked myself.
I want to talk more about “surviving” that my brother and I talk about a lot, and what it means to live out of that consciousness. We often talk of our parents who lived out of the consciousness of surviving Holocaust. They were Survivors, big-time.
What does that mean? One thing it implies is that you experienced many horrific, life-threatening, and certainly life-changing things. Sometimes it also implies that it becomes the only prism you see life through, a source of self-definition. This is what happened, and therefore this is who I am. You’ve seen the abyss; you didn’t fall in, but almost.
I have no judgment around people who went through what they did. At the same time, it’s easy to see things only through one prism even in mundane circumstances.
I caught a bad cold early last week, right after my return from Brazil. Eight days later, it has settled into my lungs, robbing me of energy. When that happens, I see most things through the prism of illness. Would I give a talk sometime in May at a Zen center? I’m tempted to say no. Why? Because right now I have no energy, so that’s the prism I look through even though the invitation is for an event two months away, by which time I’ll probably feel fine.
I went to Israel to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. The family had made preparations. One of the events they arranged was a kiddush in her synagogue after the Shabbat service, in which congregants gather for light foods and drink. This time they would do this in my mother’s honor.
“What should I do?” I asked my brother and sister.
“You help mom prepare her remarks,” they told me. “And make sure she doesn’t refer to the Holocaust. Everyone there knows that about her. Let’s try to make this light and happy.”
I worked with my mother, wrote out notes for her, asked her not to talk about her past in the Holocaust, she said of course she won’t. And the first words out of her mouth that Saturday late morning, as a large crowd stood outside on a hot July morning, were: “Of course, you all know I grew up in the Holocaust. It’s been with me all my life, and I want you to know . . .”
She couldn’t help herself, for a variety of reasons. She looked at much of her life, including the many happy decades she had after the war, though that prism.
Frequently we refer to ourselves as survivors—of abuse, harassment, disease, a bad marriage, a tough job. I have heard people refer to themselves as survivors when what happened to them were what I call the wounds of life: a tough childhood, divorce, the loss of a job, death.
Some of these things—not all—can cause severe stress, a sense of dislocation or loss of identity, blankness, disconnection. I’ve experienced all the above, but do they make me a survivor? If so, then I’ve survived life, which consists of all these things.
In Greek, trauma refers to wound. I’ve experienced a challenging childhood, divorce from my first husband, the loss of various friends as well as my second husband, and various work disappointments. These were wounds, some stronger than others. Were they traumas that I survived?
We can be both physically and psychologically wounded for many different reasons, but for me, trauma evokes something much sharper and more severe, a malfunctioning or collapse of an entire emotional system.
Many people consider themselves survivors. Survivors of what? I’ve been harassed by work bosses who sometimes asked for sex. Did I survive sexual harassment? It’s not pleasant, but my life was not in danger, and I was not threatened in any way. You might say that I have a right to demand a work environment that is completely safe, and I agree with that; it’s certainly worth fighting for.
But I don’t think anything is completely safe. Life isn’t safe. My experience is that Americans especially, with the help of labels and aphorisms, dramatize the discouraging circumstances that make up any life. Someone tells me that she had a nasty back-and-forth with a co-worker which traumatized her. I’ve heard young people talk of surviving a bad date and even an exam. As if the only life we should have is one of bliss and contentment, where nothing ever goes south.
People have asked me how I survived Bernie’s death. It was unexpected, I say, and I went through a very hard time, but he was 79 and he’d lived a great life. I’ve also lived a great life. Why talk about me as if I’m a survivor?
I’m the luckiest person in the world, I often think. I’ve had the kind of meaningful and rich life I didn’t dream of as a child. Yes, I’ve been wounded, sometimes deeply, but what human hasn’t? Does that make me a survivor? As I get older, I may feel a little bruised up, but not cut to the quick or scarred by grief. If anything, I see many of those things as flavors of a life well lived.
The other day I walked Aussie. Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my husband, Bernie, and our life together. There isn’t a day that that doesn’t happen.
Did I get sad? You bet, but just for a short time. Teaspoonfuls of sadness, is how I look at it. Every day there are teaspoonfuls of sadness from a loved one lost, illness of friends, a wish or dream that didn’t come true. But they’re teaspoonfuls, not to be confused with the main course. They have spiced up this supreme meal that’s my life in the most flavorful of ways.
The Dude abides, not survives.
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