The Holiness of Presence

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 8, 2022 / 9 Tamuz 5782

Summary: Today’s Oasis Songs is really two articles, one on the Highland Park Shooting and the other on Alzheimer’s. In a strange way, they each can teach us important lessons about being present for others, whether they are the lost young men of our era or our elderly who sink slowly into mental oblivion.

Reading Time:

Highland Park Article – Four Minutes
Alzheimers Article – Four Minutes

Highland Park

Laura came to me in tears. The Highland Park shooting was a bit too close to home. Her mother grew up there and she and her brother used to spend summers there with her grandparents when she was a little girl. She could picture herself there.

Most of our children have never known a world in which they could feel that their schools were safe. While there had been shootings before Columbine, in 1999, that was the moment something changed in our national awareness. If you speak to school age children, they can also picture a shooter in their schools.

I have never been a rabbi without the specter of gun violence and mass shootings. The ink I have spilled on this topic would probably fill a book, especially if it included the poignant words of colleagues from across the country. Earlier in the week, David Kuperstock sent me a kaddish prayer Rabbi Paul Kipnes composed in 2017. He said, “You may well have this.” Sadly, I do, along with a few heartbreaking poem-prayers by Rabbi Naomi Levy and a poem or two of my own. In the past, I have noted how our responses to these tragedies have become ritualized. We feel shock, outrage, and grief. We offer words of sympathy or anger. We insert the names of those whose lives were cut short before the mourner’s prayer. And then we get on with our day. Compartmentalize.

We all need Laura’s tears. Every so often, we need to let our tears flow. As a nation, we have become numb to gun violence. Unless a mass shooting is particularly gruesome (Uvalde, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas) or touches a part of our life, as happened to Laura, we have learned to silence the pain. We must, frankly, or we couldn’t function. There’s a cost to this, however, for we can’t tamp down our emotions in one area of life without also reducing our overall capacity to feel and therefore be available for ourselves or others.

More than 220 people were shot and killed over the 4th of July weekend. Most of those probably didn’t register on our hearts. Having psychological defenses against the horror of the world isn’t normally a bad thing. It only becomes maladaptive when we cease to take action in those areas where we do have some control and silence our voices when they could make a difference. This week’s Oasis Songs will be the first in some time that you won’t find at the bottom of the column a link to sign on to IP17 and IP18, petitions to get sensible gun law measures onto the election ballot. The window for this closed on July 7th. Rabbi Cahana recently informed me that it looks like the requisite number of signatures have been gathered, and another of the organizers let me know that many CNS congregants had signed on to the measures. We can take some pride in our collective efforts. While there is still a process to go through, it looks like Oregonians can now have a robust discussion of the issue and allow their voices to be heard at the ballot box.

From a purely statistical level, gun violence deaths don’t make the top ten causes of death in the United States. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, however, the last couple of years has seen gun deaths become the number one cause of death for our children. I don’t think a nation can make sensible policy proscriptions without following the numbers.

Simultaneously, the heart has a wisdom of its own. These mass shootings feel both unnecessary and avoidable; they also highlight a malignant rot in the soul of the nation. We could probably save more lives if we focused higher up on the list. Yet how can we not address the spiritual darkness all about us? Laws are insufficient to achieve that, while changing the inner lives of people is even more difficult. People need a sense of purpose and connection. They need to know they matter to others, and they need the emotional capacity to recognize that others, even strangers, matter to them. Once those webs of relation are sundered, shooting people just becomes another video game. Our young men are screaming out to us how badly we have failed them, so I can’t help but worry that they are our coal mine canaries.

Before I allowed the headlines to hijack my Oasis Song column once again, I had wanted to discuss an approach to dealing with a family member with dementia. It feels strangely connected to the specter of lost young men so here’s some thinking about maintaining relationships with our diminished parents or older family members.

Approaching Alzheimer’s as a Patient

We almost lost my mom this past week. She pulled through, even as she deals with a host of medical issues combined with early stages of memory loss.

It’s been a week of lessons.

Periodically, someone asks “If my loved one has dementia and can no longer recognize that I am there, do I still need to visit? She doesn’t even know I came.” I recognize that question from the inside out. Both of my grandmothers were ravaged by memory loss, cognitive decline; eventually, they each learned the art of time travel, stepping out of our time zone. Their internal clocks were set to past years, with those memories claiming the bulk of their attention. Like a traveling salesperson, they weren’t here with us most of the time. They were visiting. My mother has begun her own journey into those inaccessible places, so I am thankful that she is still largely available to her kids.

Over the years, science has delved into the processes that cause dementia or Alzheimer’s. I am hopeful that eventually they will find a cure because it’s painful to watch someone who loved you once now fail to recognize you. Where does the love they had for us go if we are no longer seen? Dementia is painful, and anyone who has dealt with it understands the above question and the internal conversations we have with ourselves. “Maybe today I can take the day off?”

Even as I look forward to a medical breakthrough, what if Alzheimer’s also offers us spiritual opportunities, both to the person who suffers from the disease as well as those of us who are left to care for them?

I believe each stage of life presents us with age-appropriate developmental challenges. We crawl before we walk or run; we babble before we talk or sing. First dates introduce us to all the excitement of love and passion; marriage teaches us the challenges of preserving love and passion. Every stage has appropriate milestones.

Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi spoke of our later years as a time of harvesting and reflecting on the lessons of our lives. It offers us the opportunity to become sages and elders both to ourselves and those around us. Reb Zalman had noted that if instead of doing this work, we focused on being “productive” in the same way as when we were younger, we would feel frustrated or worse by the aging process. Each life stage has goals of its own.

In a certain sense, Alzheimer’s is a disease which forces an individual to review past events. What is unclear from the outside is when a person is merely perseverating (going over the same memory or thought without learning or growing from it) and when the soul is wrestling with uncompleted business. There is a mystical belief in our tradition that after death the soul is tossed about until it sloughs off all of its impurities, revealing its essential beauty and holiness. While it’s being thrown about, I don’t imagine the soul understands that something essential is occurring. But after the dreck is gone, the reason for the ordeal becomes clear. There’s no way that we can know with certainty if Alzheimer’s is only the breakdown of the brain; as I mentioned above, it is my fervent prayer that our scientists and researchers find a solution to a terrible and debilitating illness. Still, it gives me some comfort to imagine that the soul uses this period for inner work that the rest of us can’t discern.

Approaching Alzheimer’s as a Family Member

Let’s return to an earlier question. “If my loved one has dementia and can no longer recognize that I am there, do I still need to visit? She doesn’t even know I came.”

There are at least two issues wrapped into that one question. The first has to do with our experience as a family member. It speaks to our discomfort in confronting a diminished parent or loved one and the pain or even futility we feel when visiting. The second issue is a question as to whether our time benefits our family member. I think addressing this second question can help us come to terms with the first question.

Memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Most of us probably have 70,000 thoughts a day. Thank goodness we don’t recall them all! We also don’t have easy access to most of our experiences. If that is true for a cognitively healthy brain, it begs us to reconsider how important memory really is. Why do we put so much stock in it, as though it offers salvation?

Most of us crave some degree of social contact and human affection, as the past two years have highlighted. Less important is what we recall of those interactions. It’s the encounter that matters. In other words, an Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t need to recognize you to feel your affection. While the memory circuits may not recall these interactions, the heart does. Our love and affection matter in the moment. Like all relationships, these interactions need to recur to maintain our well-being; also, we need three good interactions to every negative one in order to preserve a positive outlook.

When we visit family members, we don’t need to convince them that their hold on reality is slipping, or that their perceptions are incorrect. We simply need to be present and share some love. I think when we can hold on to that, it can reduce the discomfort some of us have when we visit a family member, even as it reminds us that our visit is not futile. In a world where the brightest of us don’t remember most of our thoughts or experiences, it’s important to know that the moment is enough and possesses a holiness of its own.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What role has numbness played in your life?
  2. Do you think that boredom and numbness are related? Why or why not?
  3. Who have you known that has suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s? What was it like for you to interact with them?
  4. Here’s a big philosophical question: if we don’t remember most of our lives, what is the basis of our identity?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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