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Rabbi Levinsky's Sermon 7.1.21

07/01/2021 11:05:21 AM


Storytelling: Rabbi David Levinsky

In Japan, there is a way that they repair broken pottery. It’s called kintsugi. The process involves gluing the pieces together using lacquer. The key element, though, is the dusting of the sticky lacquer with gold powder. The results are beautiful. Not only is the piece of pottery once again whole, the cracks from the break are preserved in gold. The memory of the moment when the pottery broke becomes a part of its beauty. It has gone through a transformation. The pieces have been put back together. It is whole once again. The traces of the fissures remain. They are the now a source of beauty.

I was reminded of this process by an article in the New York Times last Sunday written by Emily Esfahani Smith. Ms. Smith reminds us that we have just gone through a traumatizing experience. We have been in lockdown, isolated from many of the people that we love. We have helplessly observed the death of millions of people. We have seen people suffer the effects that the pandemic had upon the economy, or from the poverty that was already defining their lives. The world we lived in before the pandemic is gone. Now it’s our task to grieve.

We want to try to forget all about what happened, to go out into the world with fire in our eyes, to try to fill the summer with all the things that we missed over the past year. That’s fine. Have a drink on me. It’s not the only thing that we have to do. We also have to grieve. We also have to pick up the pieces, glue them together and turn them into gold.

How can we do this? There is no single answer to that question. We all grieve in our own way. One way that we can grieve is to tell stories. That’s the real reason why the rabbi meats with you when a loved one dies. Yes, I must plan the memorial. Yes, I want to find out more about the person who is no longer with us. I also want you to tell stories. When we mourn, stories give us a chance to repair what has broken. Stories give us a chance to dust the broken shards with gold powder.

In her article, Ms. Smith refers to the scholarship of Dan McAdams, who is a professor at Northwestern. Dr. Mcadams writes about the stories that we tell about ourselves, or to use his term our narrative identities, explain how we became the person that we are today. He beaks down stories into two major categories. We can tell stories about ourselves that are contamination stories. These stories begin with us in an often idealized, pristine state then focus upon the events in our lives that soiled that pure beginning point. We can also tell stories about ourselves that are redemption stories. These stories acknowledge that bad things have happened to us but focus upon what we gained from these experiences.

Dr. McAdams emphasizes the importance of our narrative choices. We all make choices when we talk about our experiences during the pandemic. Someone who worked at restaurant and lost their job during the pandemic could tell a story about how life before the pandemic was so wonderful and life during and after it are terrible. They could also tell a story about how the experience of losing their job forced them to reconsider what they wanted to do with their life and inspired them to go back to school and get another more gratifying job. The stories that we tell about ourselves matter. They determine our identity.

Not only the way that we tell our story, but the process of telling the story itself can heal the traumas we have experienced. We all know this intuitively. What do we do when something bad has happened to us? We talk about it with people that we love. We talk about it with a therapist. We may even write about it in a journal. The process of putting our pain into words often makes us feel better.

James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, shows us the healing power of telling a tale. Dr. Pennebaker, over a period of thirty

years, asked people to write about their traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes a day for three or four days. The people who wrote about the stories were less likely to visit a doctor, more likely to have a sense of well-being, had lower blood pressure, and had stronger immune systems. In other words, they felt less of the physical and emotional aftereffects typical of people who experienced trauma.

Dr Pennebaker also noticed that the people who experienced better moods and stronger bodies wrote versions of their stories that gradually became more insightful and coherent over time. While the people who continued to tell fragmented stories did not experience these psychological and physical benefits. Writing about their emotions allowed many people to develop a coherent story about experience and helped them develop insight about those same experiences. This process helped them make sense of what happened to them. In very real terms, it helped them feel better and made them healthier people.

Here we are. We have spent more than a year experiencing small and large traumas. We have come out on the other side damaged in small and large ways. All of us have at least a chip missing from the vase that is our heart and soul. Some of us have a pile of shards laying on the floor and we are wondering how to put them back together.

What are we going to do with the broken parts of us?

It’s tempting to simply ignore them and throw ourselves back into life. I ‘ve done some of this. I bought a lot of tickets to see live music this week. I’m eager to get that part of my life back. I went out for an anniversary dinner with my wife. It felt really good. It also is an illusion. It always was an illusion, but now I can see it more. These small pleasures are just some of the ways that I hide from the broken parts of me.

It’s much better to tell my story. I spend more time writing than usual. I share my thoughts with the page and the screen. It feels good to just get it out of me. It feels good to turn the fragments of the past year into a coherent narrative. I tell those stories to my family and friends. That also feels good. I am not alone. We all have gone through this experience. I also spend time asking for other people’s stories and listening to other people’s stories. It’s one way that I can give back. An open ear is a healing ear.

We are still broken. The shards are lying on the floor. Walking away from them doesn’t put them back together. We need to tell those stories. We need turn them into coherent and redemptive narratives. Only then can we put those pieces back together. Storytelling is the sticky lacquer and cold powder that can turn us once again into a beautiful piece of pottery.

Shabbat Shalom

Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784