We live in a world where everything is inter-connected and where therefore we are at the mercy of other people’s behaviors, and with those behaviors, other people’s stupidity. There is only so much we have control over, and only so much we can do to take care of ourselves. Often, our lives are spent cleaning up other people’s messes — whether attempting to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves; or just trying to take care of ourselves, after other people’s negligence hits us – in some cases, literally.
This conversation goes back to my third grade class in orthodox Jewish day school, when the rabbi told us that Gd created the world and everything in the world, following which I asked, “Who created Gd?” Kudos to Judaism, and to this rabbi, for being able to say, “That’s a great question. We don’t know.” I respect people and traditions that are willing to sit in the place of not-knowing.
Then the rabbi went on to tell us that Gd is omnipresent and omniscient, that Gd lives in the past, present, and future, that Gd knows all. Not long after that teaching, the rabbi said that human beings have free will, and that it’s super cool, because we get to make our own choices. My hand went up again. “If Gd knows what will happen in the future, then how do we have free will? It’s like we don’t really have the choice of how to behave, because Gd already knows what we’re going to do. It’s pre-determined.”
The rabbi once again congratulated me on an insightful question and once again sat in the place of not-knowing, saying that it was in fact a paradox. Over the years since then, I gave the matter quite a bit of thought. Here’s the decision I came to: We have free will only up to the point of our own actions. Everyone else has that same free will. Gd does not interfere with anyone’s free will, because that is the supreme gift of our creation: We have the power of self-determination.
So how does it all play out?
The model I came up with is that there are ten streets. On one of those streets, there is a criminal. If we pray to Gd to get us home safely, Gd can help us decide to go down one of the streets where there is no criminal. But if all ten streets have criminals, we can pray to Gd all we want about getting safely home. We still may encounter that criminal along the way. And that criminal in turn has the choice of how to act towards us. The criminal may Gd forbid decide to attack. We can ask Gd for help in responding to that criminal, but again, it’s like there are three players in a game, and everyone is both limited and affected by the moves of the other players. If the criminal wants to attack, s/he can do that. In that scenario, we only get to respond to the attack and ask Gd for help in that response.
In other words, we have limited control in our lives, even if we believe in a kind Gd who wants the best for us, and even if we are loving, amazing, responsible, and spiritual beings. We can pray; we can eat healthy food; we can exercise; we can be kind; we can go to therapy and get rid of all the crap in our psyches; we can communicate lovingly and clearly; we can volunteer our time and money to those who need support; and on and on and on. We can lead elevated lives full of love, light, healing, and worship of Gd. We can still get fucked.
Take my life by way of example: I take outstanding care of myself. I meet every challenge with an attitude of how I can use it to my advantage and that of humanity. How can I spiritually juice it? What lessons can I get and pass on from it? How can I turn it around, from something that is destructive to something that is profoundly constructive, instructive, and healing, for myself and others?
By way of example, I turned my experience of childhood sexual abuse and years of street harassment into a decade of work as an activist, writer, educator, community organizer, and self defense instructor – working to end violence against women and children, as well as to help society rethink gender roles. I turned my childhood experience of racism into two decades as the pioneer of the Jewish Mulitculturalism movement – writing and teaching worldwide, providing the cutting-edge thinking and tools for creating an all-inclusive Jewish community. I turned nearly a decade of suffering from chronic and debilitating pain into a new methodology, Dancing with Pain®, which not only enabled me to self-heal from pain and live an active and pain-free life, but also to teach others to do the same.
And on and on and on.
In other words, no matter what the circumstances, I have lived my life with positivity, innovation, strength, passion, and determination. As I said in the personal mottos that I made up half a lifetime ago, “I will not be limited by the limitations of my circumstances” and, “There is no limit.” My attitude and approach make my life vibrant, fulfilling, exciting, avante-garde, meaningful and a whole bunch of other really cool adjectives. I have done more in my compact little life than most people have done by the time they die at an old age, despite having had a whole lot less shit to deal with.
My upbeat and enterprising attitude enables me to create an amazing life no matter what. It does not, however, prevent crap from happening in my life, or more to the point, stop other people from having a negative impact on my life. It’s just like with street harassment: When a man decides to harass a woman, the woman cannot make the harassment un-happen. All she can do is choose how to respond – verbally confront the guy, walk away, hit the guy, whatever. Each choice comes with a price and chain reaction of consequences. Once the guy chooses to harass, he effectively has robbed the woman of her own choice to walk down the street in peace. It’s just damage control after that.
And here’s the other thing: Lightening can strike as many times as it damn well pleases. Just because one difficult, challenging, or altogether insane thing happened does not mean another won’t. Or another. Or another. And each time, it can have absolutely nothing to do with you, your choices, your spirituality, or your lifestyle. You can be doing absolutely nothing wrong; to the contrary, you can be doing everything right, and you still can have a litany of shit to deal with over the course of your life. Just when you crawl out of the pit, you might get thrown back in again, this time with snakes at your ankles. And it can have everything to do with the world you live in, but not with you.
I remember the case of a guy in Israel, a working class man who sold produce at the souq, the open-air market. One day, a suicide bomber blew up in the market, injuring this man. He escaped death that time, but not long after, another suicide bomber blew up in the same market, killing this man.
Did this man have “bad luck,” or is there a very serious case of violence against Jews/Israelis – leading two misguided souls to target a crowded market, a watering hole for locals, where this man worked day-in, day-out? Why do we even think in terms of “luck”? It’s purportedly something neutral, ie, the luck of the draw, but in context, it is used in ways that are blaming and shaming: If something entirely outside your control – the product of geo-political upheaval or moral decay or natural disaster – happens and impacts you, why do people immediately start yammering on about your luck and your karma, even when knowing scant little or nothing at all about the rest of your life, as if the tiny piece of information they have about you defines you?
As of two weeks ago, I have been in seven car crashes, six of which have been other people’s faults, and one of which is unclear whose fault it is, though I went ahead and took the blame (I was 20, driving 5 mph, looking for parking, when suddenly the nose of my car was in the side of someone else’s car). In one case, the cab I was in got into an accident; in another case, someone plowed into me when I was making a left turn; in three cases, I was rear-ended while at a stop light or while waiting for a pedestrian to cross; and in the remaining case, someone driving the wrong way came into my lane, crashed into my car head-on, then took off into the night.
Oh yeah, then there was the guy who hit me when I was running across the street (in a cross-walk, which in California cars must always stop in front of, giving pedestrians the right of way), on my way to catch the bus to get to my flute lesson, when I was about 14. The impact knocked me to the ground. I literally jumped up and kept running to catch the bus, while the guy called after me, “Are you OK?”
Outside of car incidents, there was…
- the doctor who splashed liquid nitrogen between my legs, just for funsies — leading to about six years of eye issues, from incessant and severe eye pain and headaches, to hypersensitivity to light and inability to wear contacts
- the MRI machine that electrocuted me, with the tech that kept putting me back in the machine, insisting it was impossible, and the supervisor who covered the whole incident up – following which my back went out every day for six months, leaving me like a beached whale in bed
- the chiropractor whose adjustment left me with two dislocated shoulders, leading to a decade of pain, suffering, and disability such as being unable to lift a sheet because it caused too much pain
- the eye doctor who, despite my telling her about my hypersensitivity (as a result of all the previous medical negligence, though I did not mention that), failed to tell me about the common negative reaction to Toponol and, as such, failed to offer me the choice of whether to take the risk or not – leading to my own severe reaction to the eye-numbing drug, along with renewed incessant and severe eye pain and headaches, sensitivity to light, and numerous lost work hours as a result
- the man who jumped into the wrong side of the pool at my gym and swam straight at me – slamming into my wrists and causing pain and disability that left me unable to type, never mind pick up a mug, and leading to a chain reaction of events, including losing my job and having to invest $3,000 into a computer compatible with voice activated software, at a time that I was out of work.
But wait! There’s more…
When I tell people even a fraction of this aspect of my life story, emphasis on aspect, they almost invariably reply that I have bad luck or bad karma, or offer some variation thereof – sharing their unsolicited opinion that I am a magnet for medical mishaps or that I need to wear a helmet walking down the street. One woman I had just met was insistent that, on the karma front, either I had done something horrific in this current incarnation or that I must have done something equally horrific in a previous incarnation. Another woman, both my assistant and friend at the time, first informed me that these things must have happened to wake me up; and upon my advising her that I was plenty awake before they happened, thank you very much, told me that therefore it must be that my light “shone too brightly” and that Gd needed to dim it. Why Gd would want to dim the light of one who shines brightly is beyond me. But hey, that’s her karma, not mine.
Our lives are a never-ending constellation of variables, which we can connect in any myriad number of ways. How people choose to connect those variables says far more about them – their own philosophy about life, their own ideas about Gd — than it does about me or what I have dealt with in my life.
On that note, in college I had an economics professor whom I thought was an idiot because I did not understand a word he said. My classmates, meanwhile, thought this professor was a genius, also because they did not understand a word he said. The difference between my reaction and their reaction was one of self-esteem. I know that I am a highly intelligent person. If I do not understand information you tell me, and if I ask you clear and direct questions, and if you still do not explain the information in a way that I understand, that’s on you, not on me.
Similarly, as I have traveled through the worlds of conventional, complementary, and alternative medicine, experiencing one incident after another of active and passive forms of medical negligence, I knew the problem was not me. I knew the problem was the medical system. I further knew that if those kinds of incidents were happening to me – an educated, intelligent, articulate, and assertive middle class woman who is highly skilled in communication – then they must be happening to many others, in exponentially worse ways.
In other words, take my experience and complicate it by poverty, lack of education, poor communication skills, racism, language barriers, lack of accessibility, and any other innumerable factors that go into play in the doctor-patient relationship every day across this country, never mind this planet, and that is one heck of a hot mess. There must be scores of people, I knew, without agency – whether people with no outlet for their experience and voice, people who have no voice, people who are too debilitated and overwhelmed to speak, or people who blame themselves for their experiences.
Sure enough, nearly two decades after fighting back against the whole bad luck/bad karma assault single-handedly, I came across statistics indicating that somewhere between the third and fifth leading cause of death in America – death, mind you, not injury – is the healthcare system. It takes a whole lot of negligence to kill someone. That is the equivalent of my personal experience amplified by, well, infinity, because when you’re gone, your entire life is taken from you.
Which leads me to the matter of numbers: People seem to get really caught up in the number of times certain things “have happened to [me],” as they reference it. First off, I suspect that there are a whole lot of other people out there who have experienced these kinds of things just as many times, if not more. For example, I know one person who has been in nine car crashes and one who has been in ten – at least the last time we spoke about these matters. (Who knows, it may be higher now, though I certainly hope not and bless them to never go through that again.) I also know someone who was rear-ended at a stop light something like four times, fairly close together. These are only people I know about.
People in fact tell me things they do not tell other people, most likely because they feel safe with me – especially when I share some of what I have been through. With people responding so aggressively with the bad luck/bad karma/law of attraction/fill-in-the-blank-unhelpful response, most people are going to shut up about anything that happens to them, outside the realm of that which is socially acceptable and celebrated.
I am not one of those people. I live life raw, naked, unashamed, no matter what gets thrown my way. I write about my life as the expression of my soul, throwing out to the universe my experiences and my thoughts about them, letting the universe then work its magic. Most people keep it to themselves. And it’s a shame, because the more people honestly talk about their life experiences, the more we can all benefit – learning and growing and understanding the true nature of life itself, knowing that we really are not alone.
In fact, the act of women sharing their stories began the feminist movement. Suddenly women became aware that their suffering was not about them, that they were not crazy. The shared collective experience pointed to the culprit of institutionalized patriarchy. That awareness led to awakening that led to revolution that led to a multitude of improvements in the lives of women worldwide.
Speaking of the women’s movement, it is still the case that if a woman is harassed or raped once, people may – emphasis on may – be responsive to her and support her and tell her it is not her fault. If it happens more than once, though, heads start shaking, and tongues start wagging. The blame begins to shift from the perpetrator to the victim. I remember when a gaggle of middle school boys gang-raped a girl in their school. Eight boys tortured this poor girl. She transferred to another school to get away from the trauma, and having heard about the rape, another gaggle of boys targeted her and gang-raped her again.
My heart bled for this girl, not only because of the life-long devastating impact this experience likely will have on her, but because she probably will be terrified to talk about the experience – which she desperately will need to do, so as to heal from it – because then people will point fingers at her.
The shame is on those who point fingers at a victim, not on the victim. Every time someone shames and blames a victim of crime or circumstance, that person becomes more afraid to open her mouth the next time around. I, for example, now refrain from telling doctors anything except the absolute minimum information. I refuse to give them the back story about my various injuries, because I just don’t want to fucking hear it again. When I turn to someone for clinical medical response, I do not want him/her to give me a personal evaluation of my life, to feel entertained at my expense, or otherwise ridicule me for the traumas I have endured and overcome.
That kind of response heaps trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.
So back to the core issue of numbers: First off, I contest the notion that my experience is that unusual. I just think that we don’t hear about these kinds of experiences so much, because after a certain number, people keep it to themselves. Plus, you know, we just do not know everyone on the planet. We’d have to do one heck of a complex survey to get any reliable metrics on this matter. Has “a lot” of stuff in fact happened to me? If we were to line up everyone in the world and count all the stuff that happened to them, where would I fall in the spectrum? And how could we even possibly come up with metrics for something like that?
Among other factors to consider, how do we decide what is “bad,” and how do we rate these “bad” things in relation to each other? When does something make a blip on the radar screen of “bad stuff that happened,” and when does it not? Ideas about “good” and “bad” are perhaps primarily about perspective. For example, in 1997, I was driving to the freeway in San Francisco. It was pretty late at night, I believe on a weekend, and there was a vibe in how people were driving, that made me feel unsafe. I thought people might be driving drunk. So I turned onto a side street, to get to the freeway without incident. That’s when a car rounded the corner, came into my lane in the wrong direction, hit my car head-on, dragged down the entire side of my car, with me screaming the entire time, terrified of dying, and drove off into the night – changing the entire course of my life from there on out.
This incident threw me into cauldron known as the healthcare system. I was refused tests, misdiagnosed, dismissed as a hypochondriac, physically injured, and emotionally traumatized at the hands of healthcare practitioners. I went from being super athletic to struggling to haul my ass out of bed and function.
So was that a “bad” thing that happened? Unfortunate?
As a result of that experience, I learned that one cannot avoid danger. If the Universe wants to kick your ass, it will fucking find you and do its number. Period, end of issue. With that understanding about life, I followed my heart and moved to Israel in 2002, amidst a wave of terrorist attacks. One of my friends had a close call with being blown up at the Hebrew University cafeteria: If not for a professor saying he wanted to talk with her for a few minutes, she would have been in the cafeteria at the time of the attack. Another friend of mine had just gone upstairs after checking in at the El Al flight to Israel from Los Angeles, when a terrorist opened fire on that very line. Amidst this madness, I packed up my life and moved to Be’er Sheva, a desert town in southern Israel.
And that is exactly where I became a journalist, which in turn gave me an incredibly powerful platform and flexible, location-independent job, replete with oodles of prestige and glamour, among other things enabling me to work around all my chronic and debilitating pain. My work as a journalist connected me with the world, at a time that I could barely walk two blocks, and provided an extraordinary outlet for speaking my voice, as my work was getting read by tens of millions of people worldwide.
Israel is also where serendipity led me to meet my friend Rivi, who in turn took me to two desert retreats, where a sequence of events led me to create the Dancing with Pain method of healing chronic pain. As a result of this dance method, I self-healed from nearly a decade of chronic, debilitating pain that had left me severely depressed and contemplating suicide. Since that discovery, I went on to lead a pain-free and active life, biking as many as 30 miles at a shot.
Living in Israel otherwise rocked my world, transformed my life, and healed my soul.
If not for the lesson I learned about not avoiding danger in life, I would not have moved to Israel – meaning I very well could still be living my life in horrific pain today. Instead, I have at my disposal a life-affirming tool, available to me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through which I have and plan on continuing to overcome any pain and suffering. In addition, the learning I did – both through my own hellish journey through the medical system and through my own unfolding through Dancing with Pain - gave me the tools to save my mother’s life several times over, as she went through multiple life-threatening emergencies over the course of six years. It also gave me the courage, wisdom, knowledge, and tools to choose to reject surgery in responding to a cancer diagnosis nearly four years ago, and instead to follow my intuition and respond holistically. As an upshot, I cold-stopped the growth of thyroid cancer, without pharmaceuticals or surgery.
Bad luck? Good luck? Who is to say?
I think that fixating at what happened to someone – especially when it is outside that person’s control – is a colossal waste of time and ultimately only adds to the layers of trauma and burden and things to overcome. I think the important point is not what happened to us but rather what we are doing with what happened to us. And I wish that more people would look at life that way, so that I could speak freely without having to get into this draining conversation every time I share some of the traumas I have been through. I want to stop cringing when I speak. The greatest gift someone can give me is a matter-of-fact attitude, taking in stride whatever happened and focusing not on what happened to me, but on who I am as a human being, and what I mean to them.
So to recap: I pose that it is absolutely impossible to know, and downright arrogant and counter-productive to think we know, whether the number of things that happened to someone is “a lot” and whether it is some indicator of that person being a walking disaster.
Second, I think the number of times that something happens pales in comparison by the severity of what happens. I was friends with one young man, knew another young man, and was friends with the friend of a third young man, all of whom were killed by cars when these young men were in their early 20s. Two were hit by a car while crossing the street. One swerved to avoid hitting an animal in the road and ran into another car, getting killed on impact. One fatal incident is in my book far worse than a whole litany of those you get to walk away from.
Was I diagnosed with thyroid cancer? Yes. And I thank Gd it wasn’t breast cancer or colon cancer or any of the other number of cancers – which numerous women in my family had and died from. Of all the cancers in the world, thyroid cancer is the absolute best one to get. It is slow-growing, which meant I had what everyone with the big C covets: time. I have been able to experiment with juicing, organic food, veganism, clean animal products, and mind-body medicine. Oh yeah, and I have enjoyed the tremendous satisfaction and power of stopping the growth of the nodule in its tracks, as a result of all this experimentation.
There are an untold number of traumas floating around in the world: People have lost their entire families in natural disasters, and people have been killed in those same natural disasters. People born into rough neighborhoods have been sent down a harrowing life of drugs, crime, violence, imprisonment, and death by murder, and people have lost loved ones in that same way. Plane crashes, sex trafficking, blindness, political imprisonment, stroke, war, kidnapping, famine, domestic violence, heart attack…the list goes on.
And even with that list, while I would not wish any of it on anyone (except, to be honest, fascist dictators promoting genocide), there are inspirational stories of overcoming trauma and tragedy. The human spirit is incredible. So how about we start looking at and speaking about things in ways that uplift that spirit instead of shut it down, through shaming and blaming?