Monday, October 24, 2011

Finding Yourself – Again


For most Rabbis, the Yom Kippur sermon is a "showstopper". It's the biggest, most captive audience a Rabbi is likely to get all year. Many non-observant Jews, who otherwise don't set foot in a synagogue, show up on the Day of Atonement. So the topic is often bold, provocative, urging you to repent and reflect. This year was a little different and it certainly got me to thinking.

My Rabbi began with a story. He recounted how he spends one week every year teaching a Bible course in Mexico. Over time, he's developed a close friendship with one of the families there. Prior to this year's class, the mother of the family had spent months in Texas, battling cancer, in a fight that frankly no one thought she'd survive. Thankfully, she did. She had returned to Mexico, but of course, the treatment took its toll physically. She was thin, balding, frail.

So my Rabbi said he was not surprised when the woman said she had a question for him. He was prepared to answer the inevitable: "why me?"

But instead, the woman said, "Am I still me?" It wasn't the physical changes that worried her. Instead she was frightened that she had lost the essence of who she was. That cancer had claimed not her life, but her identity.

The Rabbi's answer to the woman was thoughtful, gentle, and reassuring. Yes, cancer had changed her life, but it hadn't changed the essence of who she was. She remained a kind, caring, generous, intellectually curious individual.

Life can make us doubt who we fundamentally are. It's more obvious when it's an illness; the physical changes can be traumatic. But doubt rears its ugly head in other situations. The loss of a job often threatens one's identity. I know a brilliant man who was let go from his high-powered, high-paying position after 35 years with the company (after a mega-merger). In this economy, at his age, it was almost impossible to find a job, and certainly not one at his previous level. His professional and personal identities were intertwined. For him, and so many others who are unemployed, job loss equals identity loss.

Or take the case of another woman I know. She recently separated from her husband of 30 years. Who was she if she wasn't Mrs. X?

And it's not just the difficult moments in life that can seed doubt. Getting married, as well as having a baby are both important game changers. Different surname or the new title of Mom can affect not only how others look at you, but how you look at yourself.

But with time (and patience), with the help of family and friends, perhaps with professional counseling, and in my case, with faith, you begin to find yourself…again. The outside may change; some of the circumstances of your life may change – but the essence of who you are is still there.

I'll remember that for myself. I'll remember that when someone is in crisis. It's easy to bring a casserole, but what I must bring is reassurance. I'll remind my friend: You're still YOU.

Marian

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11 comments:

  1. What a thoughtful post.

    Another thing I've learned through the years, when a friend or relative has lost a loved one, you should acknowledge it, let them know you are sorry. When my daughter lost her husband, some relatives never spoke about him again. She said that really hurt, it was like he didn't exist for them. Even if you don't know what to say, give the person a hug.

    Marilyn

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  2. Thank you Marilyn. I agree. I cherish the moments when people talk about my parents and sister who are no longer here with us on earth. I want to hear stories about them and how they touched others' lives.

    Marian

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  3. Very moving, and thoughful. It touches on some painful changes that I went through when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and subsequent mastectomy. My friends say that I seemed sadder, although I was determined to beat it, and maintained my customary (sometimes morbid) humor. I learned a lot about mortality; I think I even learned more about compassion. But the bottom line is that it happened; I'm clear, and I still see life as a great gift. I still see people who make it harder because of their own difficulties as mean, and I avoid them as much as possible. Thank you for your post, and your reminder about faith. Very powerful.

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  4. Thank you so much Lil. As always, your responses are thoughtful and touching.

    Marian

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  5. When my dad was edged out of IBM and took early retirement after 30 years (at least) with the company, he definitely lost his sense of "me." I caught him crying for the first time ever, and I said, "But you still have your family, your home, your life." He told me I didn't understand. His job was who he was. Even though he worked at other places for some years after, he wasn't the same.

    Like Lil, I know that having gone through my boobal crisis has changed me. I honestly thought it would make me a different person. I *felt* different afterward. It was a kinder, gentler me. Not as sarcastic, not as aggressive. Then my essence slowly crept back to the forefront. My treatment did affect me deeply and I do approach life differently now, but who I was is who I am. It's been a very interesting ride, I'll tell you that.

    Wonderful post, Marian! Hugs to you!

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  6. Thanks Susan. As always, you bring a smart perspective on these discussions!

    Marian

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  7. Marian thank you for sharing the story and the thoughtful response from you Rabbi. I've been wondering about that same question for some time especially after my thyroid cancer dx and wasn't sure of the answer. My recent surgery to remove a suspicious ovary had me wondering once again. Thankfully there was no cancer though the recovery has been tough. 2 weeks after my surgery I finally felt like I wanted to step outside for some fresh air and walk about 3 doors down and back. I was almost home when a neighbor was driving by and stopped. She started to laugh and said I looked pathetic. I was crushed. It took me another week to sort through all my feelings and I realized that perhaps it was her opinion but she was wrong. She doesn't know me. Which brought me back to the question "Am I still me?" Another week has passed and yes, I'm still me, a little sore still but inside I'm still me. : ) And the next time I see my neighbor I'll still wave and say hello, but then keep on moving!

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  8. Anjali, I'm sorry for the incredibly inaccurate and insensitive remark your neighbor made. I'm so glad you figured out that she was just plain wrong. I hope you are feeling stronger and so happy that you know, even after the dx and the surgeries, that you are still YOU.

    Thanks for your insight.
    Marian

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  9. Its a very good post. I was very pleased to find this site.

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  10. вебпромо, thank you for your kind words.

    Marian

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  11. Anjali, it's good to have you back! I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering how you were. I, too, am sorry that your neighbor was such a drip. You are definitely who you are. Time and events may shape us; but, at the core, we don't change all that much. Give yourself time to heal. Going through a health crisis takes a lot out of us, even when the prognosis is good! Hugs!

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