Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What Luck?

Life is not fair but we desperately wish to think it is. We are not all equally blessed…but who on Earth can comfortably stomach the concept that he has been shortchanged by G-d? This is why we spend so much time justifying reality. That is why we put forth so much effort inventing and then trotting out our "this is really a good thing, this is for the best" mantras. I am no different from anyone else. In respect to the bombing, if not in respect to various other aspects of my life, I have my own collection of mantras. I was blessed. What happened to me was for the best. I am a better person for what happened. If G-d were to come to me today with an offer to repeat this period of my life, but without the bombing, I would turn Him down. Usually, these mantras satisfy my craving for blessings. Nonetheless, every so often, I find myself questioning the fairness of it all.

My moments of doubt are both entirely random and entirely predictable. If you were to record what passes through my mind when I attend a simcha (a joyous occasion, ie. a wedding or baby naming)—at some point or another, you would find the bombing. But my moments of doubt feature at other times as well. They like to come visit late at night, when I am alone in my apartment—writing or watching television. They remind me that I am going to go to bed alone. They listen in when I hear about someone my age that is ten times more successful than I am. They join me in contemplation every April as I switch over my to my summer wardrobe and ditch the closed toe shoes and nylons—nylons in Tel Aviv in the summer being madness—and have to once again get used to showing off the scars on my leg to the world.

Generally, the moments sound like this: "How much did this cost me?" I can itemize and I can measure what the bombing gave me but I also know that nothing is free. Everything has its price, its opportunity cost. What opportunities did I lose? All of the time I spent in treatment, all the energy and focus I had to put into just keeping my head above water and myself marginally sane, all of the months I spent with an obviously scarred face. That year I spent being introduced to all and sundry as "Gila-the-woman-who-was-injured-in-the-pigua" instead of "Gila, the nice, single Jewish woman who just made aliyah from the United States". The six months I spent retaking courses I was already nearly done with. The three years post-bombing that my career choices were heavily influenced both by mental exhaustion and by my fear that I could get bombed again and my fear that another employer might not be as nice. If it were not for the bombing, maybe I would be married too? Maybe I would have children too? Maybe I would be more successful and further ahead in my career? Maybe I would have an apartment and a nice car and would be completely settled and established? Maybe I would not be so afraid of "what catastrophe is waiting for me next—what will I need my savings for" that I might feel secure enough to buy an apartment or a nice car? What future was stolen from me?

A few weeks after the bombing, a close friend of mine—the friend who "got" the guy I was crazy about—came to visit me. She brought a pint of Ben & Jerry's. She had great news. She received a job offer with a fantastic salary. She wanted to celebrate and since my going out was a bit problematic, she decided to bring the celebration to me. I was genuinely happy for her. I was also very glad that she was treating me normally—as a regular friend who was interested in her life as well—and not as a pathetic, generic mitzvah project. At the same time, I could not help but think: I was the one who worked the hardest, who studied the hardest in Ulpan, who did the most planning…and I end up with nothing and she ends up with everything? Her life is moving ahead while mine has stopped short? This is not fair! Six years have passed since that day and enough has happened in both of our lives for me to accept that it was not that simple. Nonetheless, I still feel like that, sometimes. How can I look at this and say it is fair?

Maybe it is not fair. A day after my release from the hospital, I sat with Nomi and Michael Elbert in their kitchen. Michael was on a roll. "Everyone is going on about how lucky you are because you were not killed and you are going to be okay. How is this lucky? A young woman caught in a bombing, seriously injured with damage to both of her eyes, hospitalized for two weeks…that is not lucky. That should not be!" At the time I dismissed his words. I thought his friends were right. I was lucky. Several years later I had cause to remember this conversation and to reconsider my blithe dismissal of his analysis. I was discussing with a friend the health of a third woman we are both friends with. This woman underwent difficult fertility treatments in order to have her first child. In the course of checkups to prepare for a new round of IVF, it was discovered that she had cancer. She spent the next year in treatments; as of that time she had been given a clean bill of health though it was not clear if she would be able to bear any more children. My friend's take on all this was similar, though not identical, to that of Michael's friends: if it were not for the fact that our friend had fertility problems, and that doctors insist on such a careful check before starting fertility treatment, the cancer never would have been caught so early and her cure would not have been nearly as assured. Ergo, our friend was lucky. I took the part of Michael. I found this type of logic ridiculous. Our friend had to suffer through fertility problems and cancer. She should not have had to go through either, much less both, and certainly not both by the age of 30. How can you possibly define this as luck? This should not be.

The truth, as much as there can be said to be a truth, is that both sides are right. It is not fair that one woman should suffer so much to have kids, and should suffer so much for the right to raise them…while her friends receive both in quantity and with no suffering whatsoever. That is true. Yet, it is also true that if she was going to have cancer, it is lucky that she had the fertility problems which led to the cancer's discovery. For that matter, were it not for those fertility problems, she might not have had children at all. It is because of the problems that she decided to start having children as early as she possibly could, instead of waiting several years as do so many women who marry at the relatively young age that she did. Had she waited, her fertility would have been destroyed, and that without a child there to comfort her. All of these are true, so who is right and who is wrong? Is she lucky or is she not? Is she blessed or is she not?

Am I lucky or am I not? Am I blessed or am I not? Is this fair or is it not? I can tell you that there are plenty of times I raise the issue with G-d. Listen, G-d, so far I have had kidney disease as infant and rather serious issues as a child, adolescent and young adult. And I deserve a bombing too? And cancer three years later? How can that be, G-d? My friends get everything handed to them: nice normal childhood, nice normal college educations, nice normal dating lives, the husband, the children, and the home. I get a bombing. I get cancer. They are the lucky ones, not me, and if you call what I have luck, well then, enough. Enough! Enough! Keep your type of luck, or give it to the irritating, chirpy, brainwashed and smug bastards who call me fortunate. I would like to see how blessed they would feel were they me. If this is Your love, than just give me Your hate, and be done with it already. נמאס לי כבר!

I challenge G-d to call me blessed and to call this fair even while understanding that even if this was not fair, I was blessed and I am quite fortunate. I made it through okay, and I took far more out of the bombing than it took from me. I stand by my contention that this was the best thing that could have happened to me even as I feel sorry for myself for having to go through all of this. I scream at G-d in my jealousy even while understanding that I very well may have nothing to be jealous of. What do I really know of the lives of my friends? I wrestle with G-d while understanding that there really is nothing to fight about. Things just are, and what do I know of the workings of the universe? Not everything that happens is or will be within the bounds of my mortal comprehension. I put on the rose-colored glasses and I take them off—grateful, bitter, grateful, bitter, grateful, bitter.

I want the blessings I want but I receive only those of G-d's choosing. So am I blessed or am I not? There is no answer.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Powerful post.

RivkA with a capital A said...

"What happened to me was for the best. I am a better person for what happened. If G-d were to come to me today with an offer to repeat this period of my life, but without the bombing, I would turn Him down."

I gotta tell ya', if God were to offer me a repeat of this period, without my cancer, I would definitely take him up on it!

I do not think that cancer has made me a better person.

However, I have faith; I believe that my cancer fits into God's plan in some way. It may not be the best for me, but God has His reasons.

I definitely don't count cancer as one of my blessings, but there are MANY other blessings that God has given me.

Like everything else, we choose our focus. Do we focus on what we lack or on what we have.

When I focus on what I have, it makes it easier to deal with everything else... most of the time.

What can I say, I still cry.

We can't always ignore our challenges. They exist.

Sarah said...

I don't have the cancer. Just the fertility problems. While everyone around me seems to be getting pregnant accidentally or easily.

And I try to remind myself that, in the grand scheme of things, my problems are really nothing. But they're still my problems, they still hurt my heart.

Thank you for this post today. I really needed it.

Batya said...

great post
You're alive; keep fighting!!

You never know what's happening on the other side of the door.

Anonymous said...

So very moving. I wish for you all the blessings you want for yourself...

Unknown said...

FWIW, 17 years ago I had the strangest encounter with a complete stranger that forever altered my perception of the word luck. I hope you will enjoy/appreciate the following as much as I did (and still do)!

Shortly after I became engaged, a friend and I were boarding a bus in Port Authority headed for a Shabbaton in the mountains (we were advisors). My friend was discussing the recent engagement in a rather animated fashion. When we got on the bus, there were no seats together, and I ended up sitting next to a middle aged man who could be best described as "aggressively disheveled" (read: torn lumber-jack clothes).

As the bus began pulling out, he turned to me and said he'd overheard my friend congratulate me on my engagement. As the "oh-oh" meter in my head started pinging heavily, he asked if he could extend a personal מזל טוב (mazal tov/congratulations) to me. I, of course, politely thanked him, thinking this would end the conversation.

I was shocked when he leaned forward in a conspiratorial fashion, and asked me, "Would you like to hear a 'vort' (explanation) on the real meaning of the word מזל (mazal/luck)?"

As I nodded in the affirmative, the man continued. "We Jews do not define the word "luck" in the same manner as the rest of the world, as we believe that nothing סתם (stam/"just") happens. So how do we define מזל? Simple! It isn't actually a word, but an abbreviation for מקום זמן לעשות(makom/place; z'man/time; l'asot/doing). In other words, for us Jews, luck is a matter of being in a particular place, at a particular time, and what we do with it."

Though the circumstances of the delivery are most certainly best described as "odd," (to say the least), I have always treasured this explanation and it has always felt like a gift. I hope you will too....

Ye'he Sh'mey Raba Mevorach said...

Zahava - this vort, which I love, fits beautifully with something I try to live by: do not ask "Lamah" (why) but ask "L'mah" (for what).

Gila - thanks so much for sharing this. It really means a lot to me right now. I don't think I have to say more. I look forward to giving you a big hug next week. You are a wonderful friend!

Unknown said...

Gila, first of all, I love reading your blog. You’re so right on the mark with the falsehood of blithely saying “It’s all for the best.” What you’re saying is, I don’t want this and I don’t care if this is saving me from some other bad fate. This is also bad. And of course there’s no better judge than the person with experience. The truth is there are situations in life that we can’t do anything about. So when there’s nothing else to do, all we can do is choose an attitude towards our suffering that turns it into an achievement, to transform it into an inner triumph. We can say, I refuse to let this make me into a bitter, depressed person, even though it’s easy to see how it could. Viktor Frankl bitterly experienced this in the concentration camps and subsequently brought his message to all suffering human beings. In this sense Logotherapy, which Frankl created, is the most Jewish approach to therapy there is. It draws on people’s inner resources for achievement. According to Judaism, when tragedy strikes we’re supposed to say a blessing – “the true judge.” Believe it or not, in the sources the question is posed maybe we should say “the one who is good and bestows good” for a tragedy as well? The answer given is no, what we see as bad we don’t pretend is good. For all of our claims that “it’s all for the best” we don’t really know what we’re talking about and we certainly have no right to say that to anyone else. All we can do is to humbly acknowledge that there is something beyond us, that we cannot possibly understand with out human limitations. Life is not fair. There’s no way to smear that over. All we can do is turn it into a triumph. I can’t say how that can happen for you. But this I know. - You have a great sense of humor and are a fantastic writer, and with those inner resources you are triumphing in some small way. You’re making a lot of people laugh. The Talmud says you get bliss in the world to come for that.

Batya Yaniger

Unknown said...

Afterthought to my last post: Not that bliss in the world to come is supposed to make you feel better. It's just a reflection of Jewish values and personally, I really appreciate your humor. I hope it helps you too and not just the people around you. Batya

Unknown said...

" [I want the blessings I want but I receive only those of G-d's choosing. So am I blessed or am I not? There is no answer. ]"

when my daughter was born with Down Syndrome, someone gave us an article about a couple who planned a vacation in Italy, but wound up unexpectedly going to Holland ...

at the time, it didn't make sense,
but now, years afterwards, the vacation in "Holland" is more meaningful and special to us, than the "Italy" one would have been ...

is it "fair"?
i don't know,

have heard over and over all the stories and great qualities about "Special" children

some sounded nice,
but as you said before,
when the well-meaning visitors all go away,
the child stays with us, and we have to do what we can, day in and day out, for her and for us

that said,
there was one comment that stands out until today:

after a bout of frustration with the Board of Ed regarding schooling and transportation, my wife blurted out, "Did we 'deserve' this?!"

the person listening answered,
"G-D forbid to think that a couple is 'punished' by having a handicapped child!

my wife asked,
"So why did it happen?"

the person answered,

"The Soul of this child requested You.

You were the parents she wanted if she had to enter this world with her special needs."

i don't know where she got this from,
(if anyone knows a source in Chazal, or in the name of a Rebbe, please post, Thanks)

but i do know that the Path we are given, is one that is tailor-made for us, and all we can do, is try to make it the best Path it can be with what we are given.

i'm sure that what you have done with your Path is something you can be proud of,
and may G-D grant that it becomes clear and bright for you from now on, and in a way where you can see how it all 'fits' ...

Baila said...


Most of us, as adults, (and many children)have encountered so much pain and suffering at one point or another. We all struggle to understand why things happen to us. For me personally, after my illness and then my daughter's, I think I would literally fall off the edge (and often I'm THIS close if I didn't repeat to myself, "This is G-d's Plan, His will, there is a reason for this". Most of the time that works...

There was a columnist for the Jewish week, I remember her face, but can't remember her name, who was diagnosed with a terrible form of cancer that she later succumbed to. While she was chronicling her disease, she wrote about the "why me?" issue. The answer she came up with was, "why not me?"

What a beautiful post.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Sarah wrote:
"I don't have the cancer. Just the fertility problems...my problems are really nothing. But they're still my problems, they still hurt my heart."

Nobody's problems are "nothing."

Even the smallest problems can hurt our hearts -- and that pain is very real.

We all face our own challenges and deal with them the best we can.

It's good to have perspective. After all, things can always be worse.

But that doesn't mean that it's easy to deal with our challenges.

After all, that's why we call them "challenges."


May God answer your prayers and bless you with all your heart desires.

Anonymous said...

This morning I arrived home from a short vacation to the island of Ameland, I allway do intend to bring home something to remember.
This time it is an etching of a sea bass, to satisfy the curiosity

Yes, I am lucky to REALISE me to be able to do things which come up in my mind.

To measure one's luck we do need to communicate, so Gila how are things
going with your new hearing aid, they are/is comfortable and the hearing is without rumbling, numbling and pings?

Anonymous said...

I've never really though in terms of "why me?".
And this was made clearer when I once had a conversation about this with a friend of mine who was going though a series of problem. She pointed out that if you look closely at peoples lives everyone has their problems and good points.
I usually think in terms of what is the best way I can get out of this situation, and what is the best I can do with what I have.
This probably comes from a background of not being supposed to show your disabilities lest someone may (g-d forbid) pity you. So we were taught to suck it up and pretend everything is honky dory. And it stuck with me.