The desire for a world that is fundamentally different from the one we have been given was the precise hubris I had found troubling in the radical cause. As Lew had written, revolutionaries and redeemers “put a romantic overlay over life;…they [played] on the most ancient of all human impulses, the desire to cover over the yawning emptiness of our real experience with something else, … a fairy tale, a savior.” In The End of Time I had expressed a similar thought: “The evil of this world is not caused by ignorance of the good, or failure to appreciate the holiness of human life. It is caused by the black hole that lies at the bottom of every human soul.” It was out of the desire to fill this hole that radical dreams were born.
One of the papers Sarah left behind in her apartment was a page from the manuscript of The End of Time I had sent her that contained a criticism of these radical hopes. In making my criticism, I had inadvertently challenged the idea that connected her spiritual and political worlds. This was the Jewish concept of a tikkun olam – the idea of a “repair of the world.” In the Kabbalistic tradition, which was its source, tikkun olam involved a returning of the entire world to God through human actions. It was the idea of an earthly redemption, which was the heart of the radical project, and was why I inveighed against it. But this was not, as I was eventually to realize, Sarah’s idea.
As I look back on our conversations, I recall now that Sarah directed me to a rabbinic tradition that warns against a “hurrying of the messiah” – the presumption that human beings can achieve divine ends. Jewish history contains many famous examples of false prophets like Shabbatai Zvi who promised their followers the end of days and brought them catastrophe instead. The rabbis’ warnings that Sarah referred to mirrored my own. Perhaps I didn’t listen carefully enough to her at the time; perhaps I was so absorbed by what I wanted to tell her that I didn’t fully take in what she was saying to me. Whatever the cause, I failed to appreciate the fact that this rabbinic idea was her tradition and her meaning. Instead I responded to her comments as though we were merely discussing an idea.
Consequently, when I inveighed against radical illusions in my book, I did so in terms that were uncompromising and without nuance, and that struck at my daughter’s faith: “What I had learned through the most painful experiences of my life,” I wrote, “was to pay attention to the differences. It was a lesson at odds with the moral teachings that have come down to us across the millennia. All the prophets – Moses, Jesus, Buddha, the Hindu gurus – have taught the opposite truth: that however different we may look and act, we are one. High and low, strong and weak, virtuous and sinful, we are all incarnations of the same divine spirit. Underneath our various skins, all are kin.” Then I asked: “Do we really regard ourselves as one with rapists and murderers? Or should we? Many try to believe it, but I cannot embrace this radical faith. I feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults who torment small children for the sexual thrill. I suspect no decent soul does either.”
In writing these words, I failed to take into account what she had said about these issues or to appreciate their depths. It was a milder version of what had occurred twenty years before but this time she was able to defend herself, and did. On the back of the page I had sent were these hand-written comments:
First, have a little humility. You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha. Note that you praise Jesus’s peacefulness when it’s politically convenient — slamming Islam.
She was referring to the way I had contrasted Jesus, the man of peace, with Mohammed, the conqueror, who had declared war on unbelievers.
But you have no respect for how Jesus got there. This is a serious practice for me, one I take on every single day. It’s about seeing people in the fullness of their humanity. They are not just child molesters, rapists, adulterers. And how pathetically easy to pat yourself on the back for not being a child molester. If you have no desire for something in the first place, resisting it is no problem.
She went on:
Back to the practice: If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being. Even if you’ve never had this experience (and more’s the pity), respect the experience of those who have. I’m not talking about an idea either. This is a full-bodied understanding of another person. This practice has in fact transformed all my relationships, including ours by the way.
For some reason, she never sent me these comments, or if she did I failed again to understand them.
I wish now that I had.
I wish I could tell her that I agree with her that we achieve a more excellent state of being when we see ourselves in others.
I wish I could tell her that I agree with her about the humanity of criminals, which is the complement to Solzhenitsyn’s warning that evil runs through the human heart, and through all human hearts.
I wish I could tell her how much I regret the fact that anger from my wounds, which I vented through my weakness, was undoubtedly the cause of many of her silences, and of anguish about which I can only guess. And how sorry I am for that.
I wish I could tell her how moved I am by the example she set and by what she was able to accomplish in the brief time given to her.
I wish I could thank her for the affirmations of her father that I found in the writings she left behind.
I wish I could tell her how much I miss her.
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