When I first became ill more than 30 years ago, it was unclear what course the disease would take. I spent months in the hospital, composing scripts in my head; the best possible scenario had, of course, the happy ending of a miraculous cure. Barring that, I was willing to settle for a remission that would last 60 or 70 years. I could barely bring myself to envision a tragedy of increasing pain and helplessness, followed by death at an impossibly early age. In the end, neither drama was staged, for it turned out there was yet another scenario, one for which I had not learned my lines: the melodrama of an ongoing struggle against an illness that refuses, as it were, to follow the script.
There are very few lessons that I have learned from living with chronic illness, but what I do know is that pain and suffering have not ennobled me in any way. As I have been known to say, it has at times merely made me very bitchy, for pain has a way of blotting out every emotion except anger. Sometimes the anger has an easy target: doctors, when I am feeling awful, and there's nothing much to be done; or my body, when I realize that once again it has betrayed me. But truth be told, that anger dissipates when I am feeling better. Sometimes it is the anger born of disappointment and frustration, tinged with what I know is useless regret about what has happened to me. But I recognize that I cannot live thinking about what might have been, and in my better moments I am able to acknowledge that there have been lots of very good times along the way.
But the anger that is most difficult to confront comes when I seek spiritual comfort and cannot find it. I do not believe that there is any cosmic reason why I am ill. I do not believe that I am being punished for some moral failure. I do not believe that Adonai
(Hebrew word for Lord) wishes to chasten me or test my spiritual strength. Yet, although there are times when I am afraid I cannot summon the will to "hang in there," when I long to know that "though I walk a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me," I feel only that Adonai is very far away. It is at those moments that I understand so painfully the angry cry of the psalmist: "How long, Adonai, will you ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? Look at me, answer me, Adonai Elohai." Like him, I call out, "Hineini. Here I am, Adonai. Where are You? From where will come my help?"
There are no quick fixes for this kind of anger, for it is a breach that is not easy to repair. But somehow, even full of rage, I know that I must try, no matter how painful the attempt. What I have come to understand is that the answer to my call for help may come from unexpected places and in unlooked-for ways. It can come from being at a Sabbath service. While reciting the mi'sheberakh
for a friend who is ill, I feel overwhelmed by the power of prayer. It can come from struggling with a text. I take courage from Job's rejection of the simplistic pieties of his comforters, and from his calling Adonai to account for his suffering. It can come from a telephone call from my sister or brother. It is then that I realize that Adonai's presence is felt through the connections we make with those we love. It is there that I see the face of Adonai.