By: Ariel Fixler
THIS POST IS INSPIRED BY AND DEDICATED TO TWO PEOPLE.
1. MY SECOND MOTHER SHARON BORENSTEIN. WHO INSPIRED THIS DIALOGUE IN A MOST THOUGHT PROVOKING MANNER. THANK YOU. FOR BEING PART OF MY RELIGIOUS FORMATIVE YEARS MENTIONED BELOW AND CURRENT “EXTENDED FAMILY”.
2. RACHEL KLINGHOFFER MARCUS AND HER HUSBAND NOAH, FOR ALWAYS HAVING AN OPEN DIALOGUE WITH ME CONCERNING RELIGION AND MY BELIEFS AND SUSPENDED BELIEFS. FOR INTRODUCING ME TO JEWISH OUTREACH AND SUPPORT THROUGH SHIRA RUSKAY. WHERE I FOUND COMFORT AND JEWISH COUNSELING THROUGHOUT MY ILLNESS. http://www.jbfcs.org/programs-services/jewish-community-services-2/shira-ruskay-center/
In the words of the talented and formidable band, R.E.M. “I was losing my religion” in my battle against my disease, debilitating side effects and decline.. Even though the affable George Michael kept singing to me, “Oh you gotta have faith, faith, faith”, while waving my hands in the air like I just don’t care. I was Ariel the Ambivalent. I lost the religious fervor and zeitgeist.
When tackling illness in a supportive setting, the topic talked quite habitually and frequently in support groups is loss of faith and religion. Even the most religious, faithful, humble, genuine and giving people start to lose faith. It is natural but goes unnoticed or talked about because of shame and shock and awe. In short they “GO DARK”. It happens and it is nothing to be ashamed about. So let’s normalize it and talk about it here.
When I was sick the amount of “praying for you” messages I got ranked up there with the “thinking of you” and “XO” communication. It was something YOU SAID. We try to heal through religion, consulting our faith and prayer. We seek counsel we never sought before. We embrace prayers we never uttered before and we embrace religion we had long forgotten. Many people become born again with their religion or embrace a new one all together.
Conversely, many people become angry with their faith for not providing rapid healing and health. For not taking away their pain and agony. They blamed God and their faith for abandoning them and making them filled with rage, hostility and confusion. The mere utterance of “praying for you” no longer provides comfort. I struggled the middle line on that topic. What do I mean? It’s two-fold in its soluble solution.
1. I appreciated people praying for me and evening thinking of me.
2. However I felt that my faith and that those same prayers went unanswered.
A Quick Religious Debriefing and Background:
I wasn’t particularly religious for the last 10 plus years. In my formative years I had religious schooling (a dual education at a Jewish Day School). I love so many people from those years and truly cherish the friendships it bestowed upon me. I toyed around with being Orthodox for a few years in my very early teens. Mainly because my neighbor and best friend (Amanda) and her family were religious. I wanted to seek what she sought, follow what she followed and be different and bold. I was so angry at my family for not following my religious initiative lead. When they attended the “other” synagogue (the Conservative shul they had to drive to attend) I hid in the backseat. Or I asked them to pick me around the corner at a neighboring deli. Because that made sense right? Shaming another sector of same religion. But soon my religious enthusiasm waned as quickly as our nations love for grunge rock and heavy flannel shirts at the time. I got my license soon after and discovered the opposite sex, non-kosher food, weed and booze. So goodbye to long skirts and hello to short skirts and being what my neighbor Amanda called being “a wild child”.
Once I graduated from high school I didn’t do too much with my schooling or religion (and I wasn’t proud of that fact). My family kept their religion. They kept their attendance record at temple phenomenally intact. They loved their roots and cherished them. My display of affection for my religion came in the form of celebrating the major Jewish Holidays, uttering a few prayers once a year for my Mom’s annual holiday meals to show off my education. My need to please and conform by attending Jewish charity events that my friends ran and spouting some Hebrew terms out to impress my colleagues while traveling abroad (oh and to impress my foreign lovahs). Yea I wasn’t a winner and a tried and true religious Jew. But I always cherished where I grew up, the wonderful people I grew up with, my heritage, my schooling and my trips to the Holy Land.
When I got too busy to be a more participating Jew I thought I would catch up later. Like it was a show I could binge at my will and prerogative at a TBD DATE. I thought it would always be there for me RIGHT? Like a friend you hadn’t talked to for years and you can just automatically pick up where you left off like no time had passed.
When I got sick I was angry at the world and a special target lay in waiting for my religion. I hated the words praying for you (not because of the genuine sentiment) because I stopped believing in prayer and religion I was once held so near and dear. The only semitic quality that reminded me I was Jewish was the Jew fro I was growing out with my post chemotherapy follicles.
I envied my friend Robin Arzon who was converting to Judaism not to be trendy but because she sought what she needed within Judaism and saw beautiful traditions drenched in history, struggle and survival. She didn’t convert for a man, she converted because the religion made her feel HUMAN and made her feel WHOLE.
So if you are someone who is ill in whatever stage of religious confusion and crossroads. Maybe you have lost your religious belief, feel like reneging others beliefs and revoking religious proclamations. You know what? IT’S OK.
If you are suffering loss and is someone questioning why this happened to YOU and if there is a GOD it is also OK. It doesn’t make you a non-believer or an all around bad apple. Contrary to the famous music lyrics by Billy Joel you can actually be a sinner and a saint. Questioning your faith and your ability to communicate with God is normal. It is a natural way of thinking and a natural progression and direction of your anger and confusion. So try to embrace it if you can. Question the unquestioned and internally and externally debate.
I actually sat down with both a priest and rabbi (that is not a joke set up I swear). This hospital was Presbyterian in name (but very open and tolerant in its religious affiliations). So the hospital staff set up the dialogue for me. The day the priest saw me was actually on the Sabbath and he took the Shabbat elevator up to see me. I don’t know why but the irony brought me a massive sense of comfort. I told them I was seeking comfort and counseling through Jewish counseling services and was trying to be open minded and not ashamed of my suspended belief. http://www.jbfcs.org/programs-services/jewish-community-services-2/shira-ruskay-center/
Our conversation was one geared toward rediscovering what I did believe in and where my faith currently resided. I encourage you to do the same or just let it be. The feeling may go away or stay, either way it is not something to ashamed of, self-hate or deride yourself over.
In the end, I was loved, supported and embraced by all religious sectors from my past and present. The Conservative sector I once put aside and the Orthodox one I literally and figuratively sped away from were still very much within my spirit.
Promise me you understand that it is a natural course of working through your emotions and your illness. Lastly, you will never see me engage in a political, spiritual and religious debate about faith or Israel on or offline (those waters are too hostile and rigid for tepid old me). HOWEVER it doesn’t mean I am any less connected, attentive and grateful to the values and history in my religion and culture.
Download pdf version here (AN ILLNESS AND LOSS DIALOGUE WITH THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN APRIL IN NYC).