Archive | suffering

The Avocado Sushi Dilemma

Some time ago, Dar and I tried a new sushi restaurant in town. Our sushi requirements vary considerably: Dar prefers rolls made out of strange sea life: clams, sea snails, and octopus, while I gravitate to faceless land life, such as cucumber, carrots, and avocado. In this case, while we were adventurous in trying a new restaurant, we stuck to our usual ordering routine. Dar ordered a tako sunomono salad, while I ordered an avocado sushi roll. What we got, however, was far from the safe choices we thought we made. Dar’s tako sunomono had disappointingly-little tako and a whole giant pile of sliced cucumber. My avocado sushi had so much avocado dripping from it, that it could more accurately be described as sliced avocado than a sushi roll.

Sushi takes finesse, balance, delicacy. Even the simplest roll could become inedible by a heavy-handed, inexperienced, or overzealous chef. No wonder becoming a chef is such an arduous process of schooling and on-the-job training. Whether it’s too much avocado, too little avocado, a rotten, stinky avocado, or whatever quality of rice, a sushi chef must tread a fine line in making his or her creations.

In contrast to sushi chefs (who at least get paid for their efforts and who will, in fact, receive compliments when they make an especially yummy roll), parents must walk the fine line of how much avocado to put in a roll without job-specific training or schooling and certainly without ever receiving any positive feedback (except, perhaps, after the children turn the ripe age of forty-five). I am referring, of course, not to making sushi for our kids, but to our efforts to bring them up in the way least damaging to their self-esteem, capabilities, potential, well-being and more. We cook for them, drive them around, help them with their homework, encourage them, pick them up when they fall, and stay up late at night if they have the stomach flu and are throwing up all over the floor. And yet somehow, no matter how much we try, the fine line of how much avocado to put in the sushi roll eludes us. Making the perfect son-or-daughter roll seem as far away as one of Pluto’s moons. Or more.

Raising children, we could argue, is much more complicated than making sushi. For one thing, those darn kids keep changing on us in ways that avocado does not. Things that worked well when they were three are useless by the time they’re seventeen, or arguably, even by the time they turn five. Learning the skills needed to deal with the issues they bring home, whether it be limit-setting, bedtime, homework, interest in boys, getting the first period, drinking alcohol, or learning how to drive, is a constant race against the clock. Before we’re experts in one thing, the kids have already “been there, done that,” and are on to something completely new which we couldn’t have imagined if we tried. We never become experts, instead constantly finding ourselves face-to-face with the limitations of our own knowledge and experience.

Being parents is the hardest job in the world. Sure, there’s moments of gratitude, joy, and satisfaction, but if anyone tells you they never experience the humbling sensation of truly not knowing what to do, well, they’re probably just not paying enough attention… or else, they’re using the well-known and oft-used tool of bluffing their way through it all. We have to bluff once in a while as parents, you know, because just imagine if the kids knew how little we know.

I’ve been thinking about this avocado-sushi dilemma lately, noticing my see-sawing attempts between too much, too little, overripe, and raw to parent my teenagers who are growing (and surprising me constantly) by leaps and bounds. This morning, for example, a grumpy teen rejected the waffle breakfast which she requested specifically last night. Dar has been telling me for weeks now to stop making them breakfast, and yet my desire to please the kids is nearly impossible to overcome. Waffle breakfast turned out to be too much avocado. In contrast, my son who just turned seventeen, told me he did not want to celebrate his birthday this year. I therefore did not put up decorations in the house. No decorations turned out to be too little avocado. But without hardly ever receiving compliments when I do a good job, and always heaps of complaining, how do I even know when I’ve made the perfect roll?

Are we back where we started, with an inedible roll, with an imbalanced, guilt-or-resentment-induced parenting style, or just worried that we’re messing up our kids so badly that we need to start saving for that psychiatrist fund?

I hope not. And in fact, I would like to suggest a different perspective, one that is possibly less concerned with results and feedback and more with faith, trust, and kindness: the mindfulness approach. In the mindfulness approach, how much avocado we put on the roll is not the main issue. Instead, we focus on what it feels like to have put too much or too little avocado (or the wrong kind of avocado altogether) on. Whenever we don’t know what to do, or feel we’re doing it all wrong, we pause and focus on what thoughts and emotions come up, and rather than push the avocado (or situation) away, yell at the waiter and the chef, and stomp back home to write an angry review, we stay with the frustration, anger, sorrow, fear or whatever comes up. The mindfulness approach is not about doing or fixing, but about being. Being with all these difficult feelings and thoughts, our wishes to be better, to do better, our love for our kids, and our desire to be good parents (or at least better than our own). The mindfulness approach isn’t mistake-centered, but kindness-centered. It acknowledges how hard it is to get it right, it stresses the intention, the effort, and what is present in, well… the Present. And it always allows you to start back again from scratch.

Every day is a new day, in the mindfulness approach.

So try this next time you’re frustrated by the kids, or yelled at them, or behaved in any of the multitude of ways that you promised yourself you would never do again:

Stop (that’s already a big step).

Take a few breaths (at least three or five).

Observe what’s happening in your body — are you contracted? overwhelmed with shame? is your belly tight? Is your mind sizzling with thoughts? Is the inner critic in the forefront? What sensations do you feel in your jaw, your eyes, your hands? And though this is really hard, try to stay with these sensations. It is difficult to be with all this, with the contraction, the shame, regret, sadness, anger. Really hard. But stay with the feelings for as long as you can, and remind yourself that you are not to blame. Parenting is objectively hard, and it is normal and natural for these feelings and thoughts to come up. You are doing your best, and you are not alone. We’re all of us doing as best as we can. All us parents are struggling to stay afloat in this parenting pool of thick mud.

When you’ve noticed your heart is back to normal, or when you’re ready to continue, proceed with your life. Make the next son-or-daughter roll again, and again, and again, a million times, even if you’ll never get it just right. And continue to be kind to yourself. This parenting stuff sure is tough.

This practice, perhaps you noticed, has the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a few breaths, Observe your body sensations, feelings and thoughts, and Proceed. And it is, in fact, a practice. We do it again and again, and not in order to get the roll perfect. That is not the point. We do this until it is easier to notice how we feel, what we sense, and what we’re thinking, and then we continue to do it. We do this practice to develop kindness for ourselves, for our children, and for other parents who are suffering like us. We do this to gain some inner (rather than outer) peace, a little bit more perspective, and perhaps, one day when we’re really really old, a wisdom to be kind to our own kids when they too struggle with this parenting stuff.

***Many thanks to Sheri, from whom I learned this practice, and to Julie, who reminded me that breathing just once before observing is not enough.

My Television Dukkha (Suffering)

Sometimes I look at my children, and it seems to me they lead very strange lives. They go to school for most of every weekday, leaving home at 7:30am and returning only around 4pm — almost the equivalent of a full-time adult job. Once at home, they need to manage their time between after-school activities, such as basketball and football practice or gymnastics, and their homework, which could take as much as an hour-and-a-half every day. After the homework is complete, oftentimes the kids elect to sit in front of the television, the xBox or their iPads, staring at the screens for hours at a time.

Here’s what my and my sister’s life at their age looked like:

We had school from 8am to 2pm at the longest, often coming home at noon. We had homework, and I sure read a lot, but I spent a lot of time outside, in our garden or the street, playing. I also played the piano. My sister went to jazz and aerobics classes and took karate lessons. But we often played with friends. There was only one channel on television in Israel. For some two hours each afternoon the programming was only in Arabic, and in the evening, it was more for adults. And so, though we watched some television, our life was not focused on it, except perhaps somewhat during summer vacations, when there was more programming oriented to our age. But even then we spent most of the day playing with friends outside, reading (me), or going to the beach and the pool. We did not have a computer till I was in my teens, and even then, games were limited and the internet not invented yet. Our lives were focused on friends and on being outside, and, for me, on books.

When I look at my kids, I wonder what this indoor, screen-oriented life would look like when they’re adults. I worry that they are self-numbing. That they don’t really know what to do with their time other than this digital easy choice. The fear that as a parent I ought to control this better seizes me, and I feel desperate and hopeless at the same time. Somehow, whenever I talk to other parents, they don’t have this problem at all. “We hardly watch television,” one mother told me the other day. “She’s too busy with soccer practice,” said another.

Once school is done for the day, most kids around here head to sports practices, music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and many other after-school activities. Their time is so tightly scheduled that it is impossible to make plans for playdates during the week, and even the weekend is often tough. While admittedly riding horses or playing soccer does sound much better in every way (healthier, more educational, morally more correct perhaps) than watching television, I wonder sometimes if all these activities are simply another symptom of our non-stop society that is so afraid to pause for a moment and get bored.

This morning, I went to meditation practice at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I was tired, and my head kept whip-lashing as I fell asleep and woke up sitting on the pillow. I had looked forward to coming, eager for a half hour of uninterrupted quiet, a half hour of not needing to talk, not needing to do anything, a half hour of simply being in the moment, even if that moment was full of sleepiness. After the meditation, Robert Cusick spoke about the Eightfold Path and how to end suffering (dukkha in Pali). As he spoke, my listlessness transformed itself into a panic about this television issue. I was ruining the kids’ lives. I was not doing my duty by them. What kind of a parent was I? The image of my daughter staring at the television last night came to my mind, and my chest filled with such tightness, such desperation, such helplessness, that I wanted to jump out of my seat, to do anything except experience that.

In my mind, action was paramount. I was going to go back home and sit the kids down for a talk. No more television. Ever. Not on weekdays at least. I was going to talk to Dar about not getting Uri the Playstation he wanted for his birthday. That’s it. No more. I was done with screen time. I was going to be better this time. I’ll make them check-in their iPads in the kitchen. I would be on top of making sure the TV was always turned off. No computer for me either. Possibly not even for Dar. I will let them be bored. It’s better than this digitalization of our life. We’ll go to the pool instead, or I could schedule them some music lessons again. We will be a screen-free home. In my frenzy, I was no longer at the meditation hall. Instead, I was fighting the kids, fighting, in a way, against this awful sin it seemed to me that I was committing against their life.

Fortunately, Robert Cusick’s words interrupted my self-torture, bringing me back to the hall. He was telling a story about something that happened in a class he taught the other day. The class began, he said, with a guided meditation. As everyone was sitting, and he was already guiding them in the meditation, late-comers trickled in. The door opened and closed. Chairs creaked and scraped. Bags thumped down on the floor. Sound was happening, but he noticed some of the meditators were opening their eyes, glancing back. In our heads, he explained, a simple noise transforms into stories: who is coming? why are they late? don’t they know the class started already? don’t they know they’re interrupting the meditation? But it was just sound that was happening. Only sound. Nothing else. The rest were stories that were going on in people’s heads.

As Robert Cusick spoke, I suddenly understood. What was happening for me, thinking about the digital usage at home, was fear — fear that I am not a good enough mother. The rest was just stories that I was telling myself that I thought could happen in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. The need I felt to act, like the need the meditators felt to see who was coming, was a reaction to the fear, but there was no real, urgent need for me to act. If I acted now, I’d be acting from that fear and ignorance, from a place of heaviness and helplessness and despair. Instead, I can do what I’ve heard people talk about countless times in meditation: I can simply be with this fear. I can hold this fear and myself with compassion. I can experience it and see that it is just a fear, even if it does seem to me such a terrible, scary fear. And let go of the need to react.

Perhaps, once I’ve learned to hold my fear (this fear of not being a good enough mother) with compassion, I will be more capable of acting wisely with regards to the television/ipad/xbox situation at home. Right now, I realize I cannot. Right now, any action I take will not really be an action, but a REaction, and as such will probably go the way my resolutions regarding the TV had gone before: to guilt and more helplessness and fear. I have a long way to go in learning to hold this fear. It’s a big one for me. And so, for today at least, I’m not going to do anything except be kind to myself about it as much as I can. I’m going to trust that the sense of urgency I feel is a passing sensation. That this situation (which is largely in my imagination anyways) is not critical. That I cannot build or destroy anything in one day, and that the kids, god willing, will not be quite as irretrievably ruined as I fear by another digital day.

The World Is Perfect Today

I do not see myself as a politically inclined person. I rarely follow the news. As the name of my website and of my business suggests, I believe very deeply that the world will be saved by us creating little corners of joy, ever expanding circles. Sometimes, however, it is hard to keep sight of our own little corner of joy. The contrast between it and what is happening in the world is too great. I wrote the following in an attempt to express and relieve my confusion about what is happening in the world today.


The World Is Perfect Today

The world is perfect today, have you noticed?
The sun is shining in a sky so blue,
An infinite expanse of light,
Painting the world in gemstones:
Green leaves glittering like emeralds;
Ripe blackberries, a cascade of black diamonds on the vine;
The earth, an inviting, golden mother, brilliantly reliable.

The world is perfect today, have you noticed?
Calm, quiet, peaceful, true.
Birds on the trees sing a song of joy;
A coyote steals through the brush, its ears erect, listening;
Deer in the meadow raise their heads, but all is well;
The mountain lion is satiated, resting in the shade.
The world is perfect today.

The world is perfect today, have you noticed?
The wind pulses through the trees on its way to the ocean,
The clouds meander across the sky in its wake, unconcerned.
My chimes, hanging from the rafter, ring lazily.
A white dog sleeps on the sofa, his eyes closed in a trust so complete;
And I? I sit here today with my heart dripping blood,
For this bewildering world that is so perfect and so mad.

A man had died and was buried today.
More than one man.
This man had parents, children, a wife,
People who loved him, with whom he had dreams and hopes entwined,
This man had died and was buried today,
And yet the world continues as is.
It is still a perfect world today, as perfect as yesterday and the day before,
As perfect as tomorrow will be.

The sun will shine on his grave, and birds will sing from the trees nearby;
Clouds will meander in the blue sky;
And the seasons will change across the movie that is no longer his life.
And in case you haven’t noticed,
I am sad.
And mad.
And oh, so very confused
About why
What made it ok for this man to have to die?

Do you believe a man with a different color skin than you is still a man?
What about a man of a different religion?
What about a woman?
What if you really hate this man?
What if this man is a killer?
Is a soldier a man?
Is his enemy a man?
Who deserves to live, and who gets to decide
If the person who died is a human.
Who gets to decide for whom we grieve
When a man from one side
And a man from the other

A man died and was buried today.
He left behind him a wife, a baby and an unborn child, still in the belly,
And for some reason my tolerance for this killing expired.
Has it ever not expired?
Out there in the war zone, there is so much hate
And not just hate of the Other.
You (yes, you) send soldiers to die.
Do you feel it is justified because they are soldiers?
It is good — don’t you know? — to die for one’s country.
There is bravery at stake,
Decorations awarded.
Defending the innocent.
Draped in a flag, the grave covered with flowers,
Forever be remembered.
A hero who never grows old, who will never again hug and be hugged
Who will never see his wife or his children grow old.
Do you send these soldiers to fight
Because you hate yourself
Or what you look at as the Other?

A man had died and was buried today,
Leaving behind a wife, a baby, and an unborn child, still in the belly.
Two children will grow up without their father
And try as I might, I cannot for my life figure out why
The world is still so perfect today
The sun is still shining
My outrage, choked inside of me
The guilt
So helpless
So powerless
Cannot change the facts, what has happened.
What still happens.

A man had died and was buried today
In our perfect, wonderfully bewildering world.
Rockets are buzzing
People are shooting each other.
Hatred is curling its tendrils
Through smoke-filled streets
Burning tanks and houses.

The world is perfect today
The sun is brilliantly shining
The earth opened up its belly and accepted
Yet more dead
Recycling their bodies.

The world is perfect today
The birds singing joy, free from sorrow
And I, I am sorry for the loss
Not only of one man, or twenty five
Not only of those of my own nationality.

The world is perfect today
Boiling with hatred
And I am sorting through the perfect rubble
Trying to find rhyme and reason
In all this wonderful sunshine.

The world is perfect today, did you notice?
It is as it is.
Hunger, war, rape, murder.
A flutter of color on a butterfly’s wing.
And above all, the sun, cheerfully shining.

Makes me wonder:
In that tunnel of light
Do you think the dead,
From our side and from theirs,
Are still fighting?



May the people of both sides in this conflict find in themselves the possibility of peace. May the dead rest in peace, and their families find in themselves the strength to continue and the ability to find joy in this world despite their pain. May they be able to grieve fully, for as long as they need, and may they be surrounded by love, the love of the universe, and the love of each other, and the love of the departed one, and all the support that they need.

May you all be happy once more. May you be free from pain. May you feel loved. May you know that you are forever kept in the heart of the world, and in my heart, cherished and loved. May we all be an instrument of love and peace in this world.


Failure and Success

The other day I saw a flyer promoting a seminar by a local inspirational coach. In the flyer, a picture of a fork in the road proclaimed a choice: success this way; failure, the other. A choice, or a judgement about the road chosen? I thought when I saw the picture.
fork in the road

Paolo Coelho says in his book, The Alchemist: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” Could it be that a path labeled “failure” lead to the achievement of dreams? And, faced, with such a fork as in the flyer’s picture, would any have the courage to follow a road that promises failure? “I have not failed,” said Thomas Edison in describing his many attempts to create an economical, safe lightbulb. “I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.” Edison followed a trial-and-error method that led to an objective result, the invention of a lightbulb, and he apparently cared not which sign, success or failure, would label his choice whenever he reached a fork in his experimental road.

Interestingly, the two paths in the picture on the flyer were completely identical, mirror images. We could switch the “failure” and “success” signs and none would be wiser. Could it be, I wondered, that both paths lead to the same place? Could it be that it is the signs that differentiate between the roads, that the roads themselves are the same? Are we confusing the judgement that we pass on the enjoyment or suffering that we experience on the road with the road itself? I was reminded of a favorite quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:

“You have been to hell, Ketut?” He smiled. Of course he’s been there.
“What’s it like in hell?”
“Same like in heaven,” he said. He saw my confusion and tried to explain. “Universe is a circle, Liss.” He said. “To up, to down — all same, at end.”
I remembered an old Christian mystic notion: As above, so below. I asked, “Then how can you tell the difference between heaven and hell?”
“Because how you go. Heaven, you go up, through seven happy places. Hell, you go down, through seven sad places. This is why it better for you to go up, Liss.” He laughed. “Same-same,” he said. “Same in end, so better to be happy in journey.”
I said, “So, if heaven is love, then hell is…?”
“Love, too,” he said.
Ketut laughed again. “Always so difficult for young people to understand this!”

There is so much judgement about failure and success, about the right and wrong way to go, about the choices we make. But our destination, where we end up, is not so different, no matter which road we take. Whether through suffering or joy, all roads lead to the same place: to self growth. Like the choice recommended by Elizabeth Gilbert’s teacher, the only real choice I’d like to follow is to walk in the road that brings me the most happiness. In James Baraz’s book, Awakening Happiness, one of the steps to happiness is practicing compassion. And what better way could I choose than to be compassionate with myself in all of my various endeavors, whether any would want to dub them success or failure, in all of the various choices of road?

Finally, another of my favorite quotes. This time from Abraham: “I am where I am, and it’s ok.” I am where I am, and it’s ok. I wish to make my own mistakes and feel compassion for my own suffering when I err. I wish to recognize my own gratitude and joy. And I wish for you, and for that inspirational coach, and of course for myself, the ability to let go of judgement, of signs and labels of failure or success. Just walk the path, enjoy the road. It is beautiful out there. The grass is green. The birds are singing. It’s the best path there is: the one to self growth.

Time to Pause

My cousin Iris, who is also a life coach, recently recommended a book on her blog, The In Between, by Jeff Goins. The book blurb reads: “The In-Between is a call to accept the importance that waiting plays in our lives. Can we embrace the extraordinary nature of the ordinary and enjoy the daily mundane — what lies in between the ‘major’ moments?” I have only just began reading the book, but I’m already curious: What do I do in my moments In Between?

I spend a lot of time driving. On Wednesday, for example, I first drove my daughter to camp, 50 minutes. Next I drove my son to his swim lesson, 30 minutes. Later we drove to his dentist and back home, one hour. Finally, I drove to camp to pick up my daughter and then to her Hebrew lesson, 75 minutes. All together, I spent nearly four hours in the car. That’s a lot of In Between time.

When I made the decision to live outside the city, I knew that my kids will be staying in the same school as before. To my surprise, I discovered that the drives back and forth are not all bad. We often sebutteflye deer, jackrabbits, and even the odd coyote crossing the road while we drive past the preserve near my house. I enjoy listening to audio books with the kids or by myself and have managed to listen to some books I probably would not have read on paper (War and Peace for example). Best of all, the drive turned out to be a good time to have family talks in which the kids tell me about their day and their dreams or ask me life questions without distractions. The In Between hours of driving, while not easy, have become meaningful and even important parts of my day.

When stuck in traffic, I often tell myself this is a great time to practice patience. This past Wednesday, the thought occurred to me that being stuck in traffic is also an opportunity to pause in the middle of my busy day and examine how I am doing and feeling and what it is that I need. It is an opportunity to find myself in my own body, settle in, and explore all of my emotions (including frustration, impatience, irritation, anger, boredom, or any other unpleasant sensation that traffic might make me feel). In answer to the claim, “I have no time to meditate,” the Dalai Lama (at least, I think it was him) responded: “Do you have time to breathe?” The In Between moments of waiting in traffic just happen to be a window in the midst of busyness in which I can breathe.

Tara Brach talks in her books about our tendency to run away from unpleasant emotions. While pausing, breathing and noticing where I am in my body might involve suffering an emotion I had rather ignore, I hope to remember how often those In Between moments really do turn out, in the end, to be moments of gratitude, restfulness and joy. I hope to remember to pause. In fact, I am going to do that right now. Pause. Breathe. Pause.

Hungry? Finish Your Cake

As a child, I was a very picky eater, and like a lot of children who leave most of their food on their plate, I too heard about the children starving in Africa. It made me feel quite bad. I imbibed the idea that my troubles were very small compared to those of other children who lived in less privileged parts of the world. I grew ashamed whenever I was struggling with a hard time. Suffering, indulging in suffering, was wrong, because what do I, a girl living in abundance, safety and freedom, have to complain about?

For years, I didn’t believe my own pain from depression. Divorce? Piece of cake. It’s not like I was starving. The flu? Other people are dying, untreated, of lesser illnesses even as we speak. I miss the kids? How dare I miss them when other children, even younger, are dead.

Some of my friends posted yesterday a link to a video in which people from third world countries read first world country problems: “I hate it when I forget my charger downstairs, when my house is so big I need two wireless routers, when my leather seats are not heated, when I leave the clothes in the washer so long they start to smell.” A blurb reminds us that “things that irritate us would be part of fantasy lives for people in third world countries.”

Listening to the video, I wondered, do its producers really believe that these are first world countries? Here in the United States, many are indeed fortunate. We have clean water, indoor heating, cars for every adult, public education, and abundant food. We also sometimes complain about forgetting our phone chargers downstairs. And we probably would, most of us, feel ashamed to mention any problems after listening to this video. But that doesn’t mean that our problems are any less difficult to bear.

Bipolar disorders, depression, divorces, suicide, illnesses, crime, car accidents, terrorism, losing a parent or a child, natural disasters, stress from work, we suffer from these and many more. And we could be allowed to suffer from our problems without being reminded that others in others countries are less fortunate than us. Would we tell someone whose wife died in a car accident that she was lucky to to even have a car?

I have an indoor sink!

I and many people around me (including those friends who posted that video) try to assist and give of our abundance almost every day to those in need, to those less fortunate than us, to those whose suffering is almost incomprehensible to us because we are looking at them from our position of privilege and plenty. Giving of our abundance is a wonderful feeling, to us and to those who receive of it. Let us not grow ashamed either of what we have or of what we lack, because it is our common pain and suffering that allows us to grow compassionate with the pain of the other.

Next time you leave your charger downstairs, go ahead and complain. My heart is with you. It is big enough to feel the annoyance (and sometimes much more than annoyance) of having to walk back down the stairs. My heart is big enough to feel for you and for the child with her stomach bloated with hunger. So fear not. As far as I am concerned, you’re free to feel pain.

If you want more:
Link to the First World Country Problems video

If this blog post is making your feel charitable today or any day:
Link to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation, one of the charities I’ve been giving money to since Uri fell in love with gorillas at age 2.
Link to Bay Area Wilderness Training, a non-profit that is involved with getting less privileged kids outdoors. I believe that reconnecting to nature is our best path to world peace. I’ve been involved with this organization since 2006.

The Infinite Degrees of Suffering

Peace, by Eden.

There is a story about the wise men of Chelem who always kvetched about their sufferings. Finally, God told them to pack their troubles in a sack and bring it to the village square in the evening. There, said God, they can exchange their suffering for someone else’s lesser pain. The men did as they were told and came to the square at the appointed time, but when they took one glance at everyone else’s troubles, they quickly picked up their own sack and ran back home.

When faced with a true representation of the suffering of another, the story seems to say, we are likely to prefer our own. Why then is it that we compare our troubles, judge them, rate them on a scale? Is my suffering greater or lesser than yours? Do I deserve more or less pity, empathy, sympathy, or attention? “Beware of Pity,” my mother likes to quote this title of Stefan Zweig’s novel. But is it beware of feeling it? acting on it? or receiving it? And how do I distinguish between pity and a higher sentiment like empathy and love?

“Suffering is,” says the Buddha, words of wisdom which I find myself returning to again and again. Everyone suffers, young and old, rich and poor. We suffer from unrequited love, pains, ills, neglect, injustice, loss. But, true to the saying “The neighbor’s grass is always greener,” I too often measure my suffering against another’s, except, in my case, I usually feel I don’t have the right to suffer. After all, I live a comfortable and convenient life, surrounded by people I love, and mostly enjoying good health. True to the character of the Jewish Mother, I put my own pain at the bottom of the pile.

Our hike in the Galilee where my son got sick

Two years ago, my son got ill on a trip, and I wished to return home. I was dependent on two other families, however, because I had not come in my car. They hesitated, wishing to enjoy one more day of vacation, not really understanding my concern. “I would do it for you,” I said in anger, and one of my friends, who has lost a child a few years before, has not forgiven me since. How can I be so selfish, she said, to spoil the trip for everyone for such a little illness, when she was there, and her own child was dead.

Another view of the hike

I felt guilty but was not sure why. I was (and still am) sorry for my words — knowing her sensitivity and suffering, I ought not to have spoken them. But I also feel for my suffering at that moment and my need to protect my child. When I spoke those words, her years of loss were far from my mind. All I felt was worry for my son. It was our comparative perception of pain which left us both with another sprinkling of suffering. And I still wonder, why did we feel the need to measure which one of our sacks weighed more, or less, at all?

The Winds of Change

A few days ago I finished reading Karma, a teen novel in verse by Cathy Ostlere. Karma follows a few months in the life of Maya, a young Indian girl who grew up in Canada to a Sikh father and Hindu mother. Maya visits India with her father and finds herself adrift in India after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. Her father disappears, and Maya, after waiting for him at the train station, finally leaves Delhi by herself.

On her way Maya meets all kinds of people. She discovers kindness in unexpected places as well as self-interest and cruelty in others. It is a time of upheaval which brings out either the worst or the best in people, and in a country like India the extremes are in plain sight for Maya to see. As she summarizes: “There is/ so much life here. And too much death.”

The landscape Maya navigates in the novel is predominately dominated by males, all of whom feel entitled to control her fate. The few women she meets are either disinclined or unable to fully assist her. Maya must learn to tap into her strength, to speak up for herself, assert her independence and her own wishes in order to survive. Like the Buddha, she needs to face her own suffering as well as mankind’s so as to grow both emotionally and spiritually and begin to understand the confusing world in which she lives.

Maya passes, phoenix-like, through fire, silence and a desert storm in order to be reborn an older, wiser Maya. After witnessing the murder immolation of a Sikh on the train she says: “sometimes there’s nothing left/ to say to another human being.” She is struck mute by her feelings of guilt and horror. For over one hundred and fifty pages, the story is turned over to Sandeep, a young man who tries to become Maya’s protector in her silence. But Maya is the only one who can save herself, and she must speak up in the end.

Toward the end of the book, Maya discovers the confidence to assert herself: “…I take a deep breath and explain/ what it all means: I have learned what love is.” And later she says: “…I have proved that I am/ more than just a daughter in this/ world.” Maya grows beyond her roles as a girl, daughter, and female to become Maya, the goddess of change, able to see the wind as it blows across the story of her life.

I was fascinated by the symbolism of Maya’s birth as daughter to a Sikh and a Hindu, the unresolved religious disagreements between her parents, and the anti-Sikh killings by Hindus which followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. None of these conflicts is resolved by the end of the novel, and I found this so very real. Sometimes conflicts just are. But a hope remains: Maya’s love for Sandeep and the possibility that the hostilities will in the future end with them.

It Must Be Love, Love, Love

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between distance and love in these past few weeks that Dar spent mostly away from home. I realized that after more than a year together, I was still very much in love. I had butterflies at the expectation of seeing him and still felt a surge of gratitude for every look of his eye. Being apart, I was surprised to discover, made me love Dar more.

The internet is overflowing with beautiful quotes about distance and love. Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, a French memoirist (and by his very French-ness an expert on love) said, “Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small and kindles the great.” The romantic poet Khalil Gibran stated, “And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” More recently, inspirational author Richard Bach wrote, “Can miles truly separate you from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?”

I grew up believing that proximity is important for love. Mothers’ and children’s hearts, my mother explained when I was young, are connected by a string which tugs at them painfully if the distance between them grows too great. When I left home at eighteen and enlisted in the Israeli army, the five thousand miles from my parents stretched that string nearly beyond bearing The experience affected me so greatly that I now have little tolerance for separation. I dislike being far from anyone I love. I miss the kids when they are at their father’s and my family and friends in Israel. I see my parents at least three or four times a week and call them on the phone every day, sometimes twice. I like the stability of presence, being together, companionship. I like the security that comes from knowing a person I love is near.

And yet here I am, claiming that being apart from Dar has made me love him more.

Two years ago, my cousin and I visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and we stopped to look at the site of the mysterious petroglyphs which the old Hawaiians carved into the lava as it cooled. As I walked through the lava desert, the voice of Pele, goddess of the volcano ,sounded deep in my love-longing heart. “You will have great love,” she promised me, and a year later I met Dar.

These past few weeks made me realize that opening my heart to love and to the pain of separation increased my inner awareness of love. Absence touched my heart, spanned the distance between me and Dar, creating both suffering and joy, promising happy reunions and teary farewells. Maybe the Buddha’s first noble truth should not be “Suffering is,” but “Love is.” I like that better, though I could argue that suffering and love are at once opposite sides and the same side of the symbolic coin of life.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109