Questions … Understanding … Mystery … and Train Travel

Two posts from Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi) recently that I want to share and comment on:


A couple of days ago, she wrote about interfaith work and the godblogosphere. She writes:

It’s tough to take in somebody else’s beliefs without feeling some twinges of defensiveness. But we need to learn to listen without judgment; to speak for ourselves, and to allow others to speak for themselves too (instead of speaking for them.).”

While I was riding on the train, I was seated next to people whose beliefs — as they revealed them in actions and conversation with me and others (mostly by cell phone) — irritated the heck out of me.

One woman I sat with for about 24 hours kept talking about how life is all about the journey. This is normally something I can get on board with — but not when we’re running 10 hours late, so that I miss my rental car connection (the car rental agency closed at 6 pm, before our train made it into the city; we were originally due in at 10:15 a.m.), and therefore spend hours in transit determining possible new plans — find and get a hotel in Orlando near train station? ask Amtrak to pay for said hotel? re-rent a car at the 24-hour car agency at the airport, which is no where near the train station, for twice as much money? ask Amtrak to pay the rental car cost difference? ask Dad to come get me in Orlando — and then how would I get back there for the return trip? get reservations on the bus to Lakeland and rent a car in the morning there? etc. endlessly — and choosing the best course of action, and end up missing both my dad’s visit with the surgeon and my hoped-for dinner with him and his wife.

In other words, I can believe life is a journey until I really need to believe it.

What was irritating was that my seatmate knew how I felt, that I was moderately anxious and angry (having overheard a cell phone convo. of mine to start investigating possible new travel plans), and she seemed to me to be spouting these platitudes like “life is a journey — enjoy it!” and pointing out all the great things about train travel in an attempt simply to prove that my perspective was wrong and hers was right.

Maybe she was trying to help me, but I’m here to say, that’s not helpful! I tried not to judge her, and maybe she tried not to judge me, but neither of us seems to have been successful.

On the way back, I was assigned to sit next to a man whose wife and 10-yr-old son were across the aisle from him. I oh-so-charitably labelled him a food nazi within minutes, as he scrutinised everything his wife and son planned to eat for the presence of transfatty acids and berated them in a mocking tone for eating such crap, was reading dozens of clipped articles on transfatty acids, eating disorders, and so on, and took maybe 20 pills (vitamins, I assume) in the time I sat next to him (again, about 24 hours). His son asked to have orange juice and he kept trying to talk him into apple juice as the better juice. He was drinking vitamin water and encouraging his son to drink it (“I’ll have a sip and then you have one. Come on — let ‘s do it!”). They were all eating baby carrots as their snack; I was sneaking Mike and Ikes from my pocket when he looked away. The level of judgment I felt flowing from him was so high that when I heard that he’s a vegetarian, I immediately felt like my 90% vegetarian lifestyle was a sham he would mercilessly deride (the other 10% is fish) (and candy, apparently).

Alternating with the food drama was an endless series of conversations with his wife and people on the cell phone that included awkwardly obvious  (to my ears) references to his various friends who came over from Germany to visit, were going to Turkey for a month, spent the week in Guatemala, lived in France, etc., ad nauseum. His constant mentioning of international travel, internationally born friends, and well-travelled friends seemed like another effort to prove something — his superiority in some way? Some kind of distinction between him — cosmopolitan? well-off? educated? ironically and only accidentally American? — and people not like him? It didn’t feel directed at me personally this time, but just weird and overdone, a kind of compulsion.

In the end, I decided food and travel were not his only control issues. I judged him quite capable of killing his wife, son and self with deliberation if he thought it was warranted. (His wife was a psychotherapist, I read on their baggage, who kept asking her husband’s permission for almost everything she ate or did.)

I finally put my earplugs in my ears not so much because he was driving me crazy as because my own judgmental thoughts were driving me crazy. I was feeling defensive and reactionary about other people’s beliefs, which seemed to impinge on me like toxic barbs.

In the first case, the woman’s beliefs were not far from what I also consciously believe — but was not enacting at the time; in the latter case, the man’s beliefs were quite far from what I consciously believe, but ironically, I was acting on them by believing myself superior to him and his control freak, family-killer ways.

I recognise how far I am from any state of grace, compassion, detachment, and/or loving engagement!

Back to Rachel’s post, this quote from Rabbi Zaslow also resonated:

To a Jew, Jesus can at most be a brother; a fellow Jew at the highest spiritual level who was martyred like millions of other Jews; a rebbe of a group of hasidim (pious devotees) who wanted to see the prophetic dream of peace and justice fulfilled in this world; a healer and miracle worker in the lineage of Elijah and Elisha before him; a mystic like the Ba’al Shem Tov after him; an incredible maggid (preacher and evangelist) in the tradition of the Pharisees. …  And yet to a Christian the above can never, and should never, be enough.”

She comments:

“What interests me here is Rabbi Zaslow’s point that Christians relate not to the historical Jesus but rather the theological Jesus, and that the differences between how ‘we’ understand him and how ‘they’ understand him shouldn’t be handwaved away. Nor, he argues, should they be reconciled. One needn’t trump the other, in either direction. Instead, what would happen if we allowed them to coexist — if we not only accepted, but even embraced the mystery inherent in these varying religious views?”


2. Today she wrote about Rilke’s quote about living the questions (“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves. … The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”)

She says, in response to that,

“I’ve spent much of this year, so far, searching for answers to medical questions, so Rilke’s admonition draws me up short. I may be comfortable with religious mystery, but when it comes to my own body, I can’t seem to help wanting certainty. …

“It’s easy, when life centers around questions (as it usually does) to become fixated on answers. To focus on the wished-for (or feared) destination, rather than experiencing the journey while it’s happening. I can tie myself in knots worrying about what-ifs and if-thens. It’s easy to write a different script for each possibility, and lose oneself in the implications of each — but Rilke urges us toward a different kind of practice.”

In contrast to my time on the train, my time with my dad was definitely more in the realm of mystery, living the questions, not looking for answers. Living everything. We hiked every day, ate well, talked about all kinds of things (bird id, plants, cars, medicine, his upcoming surgery, our family, church, friends, dogs, etc.), reminisced, walked in silence together, took photos, did crosswords, looked at the sky and the water.

I felt more tied in knots worrying about the what-ifs involved in my shattered travel plans than I do when it comes to my dad’s surgery and prognosis. I think part of the difference is that I felt I had some limited control over the travel plans, so I felt they were my responsibility; but when it comes to my father’s life and death, I have no illusion that that’s in my control, and therefore, there’s nothing I need to do, no decision to make. Other than to live everything.

(As it turned out, missing my rental car connection was a good thing. I didn’t need a rental car, I saved $200, I got to drive the Mini Cooper and spend more time with my dad and his wife than I would have if I’d had a rental car, and I was able to change my Amtrak ticketing — yet again — to leave from a town only 11 miles from them instead of from Orlando, which is hours away, where I would have had to drive to return the rental car. When will I learn that I have no idea what’s best for me?)
Update: Then again, sleep deprivation might have had something to do with it. I hadn’t slept much in the 24 hours preceding the train trip from DC to Orlando, when I sat next to the “life is a journey” woman. I’d slept better but briefly and fitfully the night before my travel back from Fla. to NYC, when I sat next to the family.

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