The Birthday of the World

The Story of the Birthday of the World

as told by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

 In the beginning there was only the Holy Darkness, the Ein  Sof, the source of life.  Then in the course of history at a moment in time this world, the world of 1000 thousand things,  emerged from the heart of the Holy Darkness as a great ray of light.

And then (perhaps because this is a Jewish story) there was an accident.  The vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into 1000 thousand fragments of light.  And they fell into all events and all people,  where they remain deeply hidden until this very day. 

According to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident.  We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, and to lift it up and make it visible once again, and thereby to restore the  innate wholeness of the world. 

This is a very important story for the world today.  This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew, which means the restoration of the whole world.  This is a collective task.   It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive and all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

 This story opens a sense of possibility.  It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference.  It’s about healing the world that touches you. That’s around you.  This is our power. 

I remember the day as if it were yesterday, despite it having been many years ago. It was a time in my life I was feeling incredibly sad, broken really. The gravity of my heavy heart was pulling me down in ways that everyday living felt insurmountable. On this particular day, I remember feeling a level of desperation that accompanied my unrelenting grief. The desperation was fueled by a need to feel different somehow, to escape the confines of my body and be liberated from the mental chains to which I was bound.

It sounds trivial now, but that morning I had forgot my running shoes in the bag I packed to take with me to work. I had to run; I craved some relief. In retrospect, maybe I was trying to run away from how I was feeling or outrun whatever it was I was afraid to face. I don’t know, but after a trip to the shoe store and a new pair of running shoes in hand, I headed to the gym. It was a cold, sleeting, and miserable that day. The gym looked out onto the parking lot, easily seen from the open expanse of windows lining the front wall. Even the repetitive churning of the treadmill was not enough to drown out the voices in my head.  I felt alone.

What happened next, I can only describe as a spiritual experience. Transcendental moments are almost impossible to translate. Words fail to capture and convey the importance of the moment or to relate the absolute certainty that something inside you changed from that felt experience. But this was such a moment for me. I looked up from where I had been staring at the console, watching the seconds drag on, willing my mind to focus on something, anything other than my present experience. I happened to see a young man walking into the gym who was clearly disabled. There was something wrong with one of his legs. He dragged it behind him with much effort. His gait was off, he moved slowly, exerting incredible energy with every step. I admired his grit, his tenacity, and his will to make it out on a cold, dreary day to the gym when it would have been much easier to stay at home. But what really shifted my perspective that day was watching how the people around him offered to help. Whether it was opening a door or carrying his bags, there were offers of assistance and support every step of the way to help him reach his goal.

In a split second, I felt in my body something break apart, tears fell down my face, and I grasped the magnitude of the revelation, I was him. The only difference was, I carried my affliction on the inside. Whether I came into the world that way, or it was from my own history of childhood trauma I don’t know. What I do know is my inside matched his outside. Things I had imagined to be easy for other people, things they maneuvered effortlessly felt unexplainably hard for me. My pain, I dragged along beside me silently.

But there were significant differences as a result of his disability being so clear for the world to see. Unlike me, he had no way to hide his limitations. I, on the other hand, exerted a great deal of energy keeping my brokenness hidden from the world. Shrouded in shame and relegated to the shadows. As I watched him that day, I wondered how much I had missed out on by keeping my woundedness closeted away in isolation.

As the people around him saw him struggle, they went out of their way to open doors, help him get checked in, and there were likely countless more accommodations made to make what was already difficult, any amount easier. Because his need for help was so visible, it allowed others to be there and support him in a way that provided comfort and healing. Something I had been denying myself by masking my wounds behind a veneer of invulnerability.

But no more. I decided that day that whatever I had to do to bring my brokenness into the light, I would do it. By masking my pain, I was making it harder to find the hidden light and bring healing and wholeness to myself and offer the same to the world. When we invest so much time and energy into building a façade of perfection, we miss what is most true. That for each of us, the light is hidden in our places of darkness. There is no path to healing without going into the recesses of the shadow to reclaim the light that resides within each of us. As we grow less afraid of the dark in ourselves, we become more adept at guiding others on this hero’s journey. The Birthday of the World reminds us we are all healers on this road to find the hidden light and make it visible once again and restore the innate wholeness of the world.

Finding your way back to hope

As a therapist my currency is hope. I would argue that it is perhaps the most potent gift we have to offer to one another. The unwavering belief that change is possible and no matter our circumstances, things can and do get better. Far too many days I check the news only to see another high profile, tragic suicide in the headlines. People with seemingly everything to live for- money, power, prestige, the things we believe make us invulnerable to the kind of unhappiness that leads to the gut-wrenching decision that life has simply become too much to bear. I am haunted by the countless nameless other suicides that we never even hear about, but for those they loved, their lives have been irrevocably changed forever.

Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in the United States right now and between 1999 and 2016 there was a 25% rise in the rate of suicide. As a person whose own life has been touched by suicide, I can’t help but believe that the act of taking one’s life means we have somehow found ourselves living within a world marked by the absence of all hope. We have come to a crossroad and are shaken by a belief that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we will never feel any different than we do in this moment right now. We reside in the vastness of the encroaching darkness, leaving us only with the echoes of our own deafening hopelessness.
I sometimes wish I had a simple prescription or masterful four step plan to combat this growing public health crisis that would help others find their way back to hope. But if I did, maybe in some way that would diminish the collective sense of hopelessness that we have all experienced at one time or another. Certainly, teachings from countless scholars, authors and spiritual leaders speak to us of the importance of our human need to search for meaning and the existential angst we experience when we have lost our way. It is why we seek out places of refuge, whether it be therapy, time with friends, family, sangha, or places of worship. A lifeline to this thing we call hope when we find ourselves with none. Somewhere, someone, something we can reach out to, temporarily leaning on, borrowing hope until we can once again find our way back home to our own.

Almost 30 years ago now I walked into a self help meeting, myself bankrupt of all hope. I carried with me the heaviness of a young women who no longer believed that life was worth living or worth fighting for. I don’t remember much of what was said at that meeting, but what I do remember, and what very likely saved my life was the hope I found in that room. It did not belong to me yet, but I had found a place to go where I could experience the shimmering, beautiful, almost palpable feeling of hope, so ripe with possibility that I believed them when they told me that things would get better.

I am forever thankful that during this time in my life, I had a tiny crack in my armor, an infinitesimally small opening that allowed for a molecule of light to find its way into the darkness. Not everyone is as fortunate. Many have found themselves in a place so dark, even the light of hope has difficulty penetrating. I imagine if we lived in a world that readied us for the inevitably of suffering each one of us will face at some point in our lives that we would be better prepared when the shadow does come. How might our lives be different if from a very young age we were taught the necessary skills to tap into our innate human capacity for resiliency and we learned the steps to take to gently hold our pain and suffering as readily as we learn reading and mathematics.

Sadly, instead, we are bombarded with images of happiness on social media that perpetuate the illusion that we have somehow failed if our life isn’t Instagram ready. We continually compare our insides to the manufactured outsides of a culture uncomfortable with embracing the full range of all of who we are, including the places that feel dark and uncomfortable. We hide these parts away in the deep recesses of our bodies, walled in by our wounds and layers of defenses and wonder why the light can’t find it’s way in.

I want to live in a world that welcomes it all, the good the bad, the beautiful the ugly, all of it! I want to let the sun shine down on my broken bits, experience the warmth and comfort in those places that hurt and need attention. Invite it all in without judgment, extending kindness, letting it touch the edges of sadness and allow it to be the bridge that connects us to one another. Refuse to let shame relegate us back to the prison of our aloneness. By destigmatizing and welcoming the dark night of the soul we defy shame by fearlessly allowing the sweetness of companionship into our deepest sorrows. Our most meaningful relationships were never designed to make this pain go away, instead, they offer the transformative and magical alchemy of connection to soothe and soften our pain and hold us close until once again, we can find our way back to hope.