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The Gift of Suffering

The Gift of Suffering

Small flat gift wrapped in light pink paper and decorated with a homemade bow and handmade card; pink and white ribbons and small cut-out hearts are in the background

February 13, 2017 – a day I’ll never forget. The day my life changed forever. I was completely taken by surprise as I became a member of a club in which I had no interest. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I heard words like “invasive,” “aggressive,” and “chemo.” I will never forget those moments.

I went through a year long treatment – chemo, surgery, and radiation. While the cancer was killed early on, I had a full year of treatment because of its aggressive nature, lest “one of those little suckers got away from us.” The treatment was brutal and for the first time in my life, I was brought to my knees. For the first time in my life I was suffering.

My treatment ended in March 2018, and I am now in “Act Two,” a year of recovering from the year of treatment. During my treatment my husband encouraged me to leave the “meaning making” for after the treatment. Now that it is over, I search for the meaning in the most traumatic experience of my life.

Three things stand out as having helped me find meaning in my suffering.

1. G’milut Chasadim (Acts of Lovingkindness)

Our tradition doesn’t demand “huge acts of lovingkindness.” Kindness can be very simple. When a loved one is suffering, do something to let them know you care. Even in a small, simple way. A handwritten card. Flowers. Something that says, “I notice you are suffering.” In person it can be as simple as a pat on the shoulder.

The simple kindnesses that were shown to me were incredibly powerful. On my worst days of treatment, when I could hardly lift my head off the pillow, I assumed that because my body was so incapacitated the world would think my total being was also “unusable.”

I felt isolated and disconnected from things going on around me, especially those activities – personal and professional – in which I previously had been “a player.” Small kindnesses helped me feel connected and less alone.

2. Shmirat haGoof (Guarding the Body)

I learned early on in my treatment that my heart and soul would have to take a back seat to my body. My body was being assaulted by the treatments and if I didn’t listen to it, I would never get stronger.

I learned to honor and respect my body and when it said, “I’m done,” I had to lie down and sleep. Since childhood I had always thought a person had to “deserve” a nap. Having cancer allowed me to see that a body needs rest. It’s not about deserving or earning it.

When my daughters were little and sick in bed, I would tell them that sleep was the best medicine, even as I ignored my overloaded schedule and never built-in time for resting. I took care of everything and everyone in my life, but not my body. It wasn’t until I had cancer that I could appreciate my own adage.

As I slowly returned to my office at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), a wise colleague and friend suggested I get a small futon so I could nap (as the fatigue was quite overwhelming). As I got stronger I realized that I could keep the futon in my office – for “normal” fatigue.” What a thought!

3. Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam (Study of Torah is Equal to All)

As I completed my treatment and slowly began to recover, I found myself searching for something to help me understand the meaning behind suffering. The kind of suffering I experienced was so profound. I needed a way to integrate it into my whole being. I wasn’t interested in bringing closure to my experience, by going to the mikvah (ritual bath) or developing a havdalah ritual to make the separation.

I knew, however, that Judaism speaks about the experience of suffering and I wanted to know more about that. So, I turned to a valued HUC-JIR colleague and friend and together, we studied several passages from the Talmud that speak of human suffering.

The experience of studying those texts with her was transformative in helping me understand Judaism’s perspective on suffering and, once again, reminding me of the awe that comes from the power of Jewish texts. Studying Talmud and connecting my suffering with my heritage was extremely comforting.

My recovery continues – physically, spiritually, emotionally. Slowly but steadily. In the end, there are, as my “guardian angel” told me before I began treatment, “gifts of cancer.” On February 13, 2017, I never would have believed so, but now I can say that I appreciate having been given those gifts – even the “gift of suffering.” It’s all part of life.

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz is associate dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, CA.

Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz
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