Have you ever felt that a book's arrival in your life was a perfectly-timed gift? That's how I felt when I received my copy of Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, new this month from Ben Yehuda Press. As I delved into the book, that sense deepened.
This book was not easy for me to read, but I am grateful for its presence on my bookshelves, and I know that I will read it again.
"Joy and sadness are not opposites. Sometimes, they coexist, like two consonant notes of a complex yet harmonious chord," Jay writes. Most of us would probably prefer joy, and probably try to avoid sadness. Sadness isn't something we want to focus on. That's part of the backdrop against which the book is written:
At our contemporary moment, the ordinary sadness that is part of a life richly lived is often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the surrender to sadness that causes it to pass -- not the suppression of it.
I know that I have shamed myself for my sadness. I so value gratitude that when sadness arises I can feel like I'm failing. Sometimes my mental monologue has demanded, what's wrong with me that even with all of these gifts in my life I still feel sad? But I've come to see that being aware of sadness is not a sign that something is wrong with me -- rather that something is right.
I try to cultivate gratitude: first thing in the morning, last thing before sleep, and a million moments in between. And that doesn't cancel out the fact that learning to sit with sadness can help me connect with God. As Jay writes, "The art of being with sadness, and other unwanted houseguests of the mind, brings about an intimacy with what is -- what the mystics call the One, the Divine, the Beloved."
The book is clear that there's a difference between sadness and depression:
[A]s someone who has experienced depression at times in my life, I feel qualified to say that sadness is not the same thing. Depression is a medical condition, a function of brain chemistry. It can be crippling, devastating, bleak. It makes it hard to live one's life. Subjectively, I experienced it as a dullness, a kind of lessening, or graying, of all emotion. Sadness, on the other hand, is part of being human. So is loss, pain, and loneliness. These are not veils in the way of feeling; they are feeling.
A thousand times yes. Longtime readers know that I experienced postpartum depression in the months after our son was born. I have experienced depression in other ways at other moments in my life. Sadness and depression are not the same, at all. Depression flattens me and makes life feel un-livable. Sadness is not like that.
Sadness hurts, of course. Sadness can come in waves so intense they take my breath away for a time. But sadness passes, and in its wake I feel the joy of being alive. And sometimes I can feel that joy even while the sadness is present. That's the experience at the heart of this book, for me.
Or, in Jay's words, "When the desire to banish sadness is released, sadness cohabitates with joy, and gives birth to holiness. More moments merit being named as Divine. After surrendering the fight to stay afloat, I drown, but find I can breathe underwater." There can be release in letting go.
The book is a series of short vignettes, somewhere between essays and prose poems. (Jay's poetic sensibilities are no surprise to me; I reviewed a collection of his poems here in 2008.) The structure serves this material well. One can sit down and read the whole book in one gulp, but there's also merit in reading a few short pieces and sitting with them for a while before moving on.
From time to time this book provoked resistance in me. For instance, this suggestion:
Think of something you truly want. Now inhabit the sense of not getting it. Really visualize yourself not meeting your most profound desires. Skip the silly stuff -- cars and whatnot -- and go for the real.
That hit me where I live. The idea that the things for which I most yearn may not be possible -- I feel that like a kick to the solar plexus. The idea that the people I love may never get the things for which they most yearn hits me even harder. Everything in me resists this. This is one of the places where the book challenges me. "That is the gate of tears: to experience the heart, not to minimize it," Jay writes. (I initially misread that as "to experience the hurt, not to minimize it," which works too.)
To experience it, but not to wallow. "Wallowing in sadness is the opposite of entering the gate of tears." Wallowing means telling myself stories about my sadness, entrenching myself in my own narrative about what the sadness is and what it means. Entering the gate of tears, in my understanding, means just experiencing the sadness. Letting go of my need to tell stories about it. And maybe thereby letting it be a doorway through which I can come into contact with (what I call) God.
It is a small thing, really, this redemption of ordinary sadness. But when I am able to catch its advent, and when I am fortunate to have the time to accommodate it, what might previously have led to a spiral of fruitless soul-searching and desperate efforts to change what has naturally come to pass is instead an occasion for a quiet celebration... I would let this be my communion, my kiddush: the sanctification of the ordinarily despised, the blessing of a heart no longer in search of its mending.
What really gets me in this passage is the final two clauses: "the sanctification of the ordinarily despised, the blessing of a heart no longer in search of its mending." What a beautiful turn of phrase, and what a beautiful emotional place to be able to inhabit. I have a hard time letting go of my desire to mend my heart's broken places (and an even harder time letting go of my desire to mend the broken places in my loved ones' hearts). But I understand why the kind of equanimity he describes is a gift.
Equanimity doesn't mean not feeling sadness or happiness -- it means being with what is. And sometimes "what is" is sadness, and that's okay. "[S]adness is God in a minor key," Jay writes. "It's not just okay to feel sad -- it is holy to feel sad, if that is what is happening now. When I push away sadness and try only to think happy thoughts, I am denying 'What Is' -- denying God."
It's easy to be tempted to try to think only happy thoughts. And there are times when there is value in changing my mental-emotional "channel," in making the conscious decision to cultivate gratitude or to focus my attention on something else in order to break the hold which a particular emotional state might have on me. But there's also value in sitting with "what is" and finding the holiness therein.
And sometimes "what is" is heartbreak. I think of R' Elliot Ginsburg's teachings about tsubrokhnkeit -- the spiritual art of living with broken-heartedness. Jay cites some of the same Hasidic texts which Reb Elliot used in teaching that class on middot (spiritual qualities), including this one from the Kotzker:
"There is nothing so whole as a broken heart," the Kotsker rebbe taught, knowing from his own life the taste of melancholy and the way in which the heart's yearning opens us to experience Reality. The Jewish path of is one of love and tears and fear and doubt. The broken heart is what I mean by God's heart breaking.
I resonate with this idea that it is the heart's yearning which opens me up to experience God. Speaking of yearning: I have recently fallen in love with the opening line of the traditional liturgy for havdalah, the ritual which brings Shabbat to its close. (Havdalah can be a time of profound yearning. It opens up a paradoxical way to feel most keenly the consummation of Shabbat even as Shabbat departs.)
Havdalah begins with a quote from Isaiah 12: הנה אל ישועתי אבטח ולא אפחד / hinei el yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad -- "Behold, the God of my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid!" I've been sitting with these words a lot lately, so I noted with particular interest the times in this book where Jay cites that same line. He writes:
So the liturgy says not to be afraid. I read it not as promising that pain will be kept at bay, since that is impossible, but rather that God will be with you wherever you are, even in the pain; that there will remain accessible a reservoir of unconditional love that is either Divine or, more remarkably, a natural capacity of the human heart. The trust in this faculty of mind (or, if you prefer, grace of God) is a kind of salvation.
This is always here.
Reading these lines, I find myself thinking of times when I have had to bid farewell to a Shabbat which felt like a spiritual oasis from which I do not want to depart, or times when I have had to part from someone I love. How my heart feels cracked-open with yearning and sorrow! How much I wish I could stop time! Sometimes the ache is so powerful it feels as though it could wash me away.
But even as I grieve the parting, I know that I would rather have the togetherness and then part -- I would rather have the Shabbat and then have to weep when it ends -- than not. At those moments, my sadness contains within itself a kernel of profound joy. I ache and there is joy in the aching. For me, that's the most accessible manifestation of the intermingling of sadness and joy which Jay describes.
What resonates for me in this book probably says as much about me as it does about the book. I suspect I will find that over time, different passages will leap out at me. But for now, these are the parts of the book which I most wanted to share here.
Buy the book at Ben Yehuda Press or from your favorite bookseller.