Crippled by a stroke, my aunt Miriam spent the last seventeen years of her life in a succession of nursing homes. Once, she had been the skilled seamstress who for years took pride in sewing much of the female apparel in our family, and who sought out opportunities to cook and bake for all of us. Now, the gifts she could bestow were reduced to the handful of green tomatoes she grew in the courtyard and the prizes she vied for at bingo: which is how I ended up with a few dozen miniature vials of aftershave lotion. Her pleasures were the generously buttered tuna sandwiches that we brought her, the cigarettes that I wished she could do without, the memories of what she had once been, and the anticipation of family celebrations when she could get out for a few hours. The real tragedy, my mother reminded me, was not what had happened to her but the fact that her mind remained clear and she was therefore fully aware of what had happened to her.
Over a year ago, through no initiative or desire of my own, I found myself in hospital. For a Jew, misfortune engenders the obligation of self-examination and repentance. Hour after hour, my life passed before my eyes. During the long days and the much longer nights, my aspirations were reduced to those I shared with my fellow animals: food, sleep, and escape. Given the momentary similarities between her fate and mine, it was natural that some of my thoughts were devoted to my aunt, who endured not a few days of indignity but a life sentence without parole, utterly at the mercy of others, some nice, some less nice, surrounded like me, day and night, by the howling of her fellow human beings, and like them, but unlike me, by the hopelessness of her state. Had I failed, in my youth, to empathize properly with her impotence and helplessness, with her experience of abandonment, with the lack of a voice that could break through her prison and command the response and respect of strangers?
And what of the screaming voices that filled the corridors all night? Were they many or only a solitary few who sounded like a multitude? Did they howl with physical pain, or were they under the illusion that crying out would alleviate their pain or compel a response? What was tomorrow for these people? Did they hope for a dignified life with others who cared for them, or would discharge from the hospital mean more of the same routine in an only nominally different institutional setting? How, I wondered, would I respond if one of those voices approached my bed and told me he had the ability to put an end to his troubles and challenged me to explain why he should not—and who would not accept declarations of religious doctrine as an answer?
Unlike the invisible voices engaging me in imaginary dialogue, I was not without friends who advocated for me and so I was recalled, sadder and perhaps a bit wiser, to my previous life. That was in late summer of 2018, which meant my preparation for Yom Kippur last year was unconventional. This year, I returned to the prescribed regimen over the forty days that culminate in the singular day of fasting and sanctity. It is a routine governed by prayer, study, reflection, and charity. What, I asked during that period of preparation, did last year give me? Intellectually, I am no doubt richer for my pains. It is good that a mortal, vulnerable being, all too prone to ignore the prospect of death, debility, and isolation, is forcefully reminded, from time to time, that none are immune from mortality and misfortune. I believe in the value of the inner life, and in particular in the way that empathy enables and sometimes compels us to comprehend the joy and pain of the human condition. Much of my advocacy of liberal arts education in the service of religious commitment is connected to its potential contribution to human sympathy and understanding. Surely my moral imagination was expanded by what I suffered and by my proximity to the suffering of others. Surely my conviction was affirmed and deepened that my place in this world is with those who suffer rather than with those who inflict suffering.
And yet, the question returns: Perhaps I gained a marginally enhanced compassion for others as a result of the unpleasantness I endured in the summer of 2018, but did it actually make me a better human being in a significant way? Did I emerge from my trials, which seemed significant at the time, merely a better teacher of Torah, or a more resourceful writer on ethical and religious themes, or even an individual more skilled at introspection and with more varied and dramatic material to introspect? Am I a better nephew or friend or neighbor?
A woman I know would like to answer in the affirmative. She received a dire diagnosis. Her response was to undergo the most rigorous treatment available. She believes she has remained pretty much the same person she was before. She still cares for her family and her neighbors and does the same things on their behalf. Nonetheless, she thinks herself somewhat more attentive and more alert in considering them and their needs, in looking in on them, in doing what she can for them. She tries to convey to her children a newfound sense of emphasis and urgency about the importance of hesed (loving-kindness).
Yes, there are people on whom suffering is not wasted. Yes, the effect of suffering, properly absorbed, does, at times, sensitize us, motivating us to act more faithfully and attentively towards other people. Not always, of course: Suffering often makes one more callous and self-centered. And if insight is forthcoming, more often than not it is not required in the day-to-day situations we confront. As a young “existentialist” I, like others in my generation, tended to assume, uncritically, that suffering is inherently ennobling and valuable. Life and study have brought me to a more discriminating and, one hopes, a more discerning position.
This brings me back to my aunt. By the standards of the world, and by her standards, I was a good nephew. Today, do I better understand her plight than I did decades ago? I probably do. Did the degree of my empathy or compassion matter to her? I doubt it, mainly because she almost certainly took it for granted. What she wanted and needed from me was not profound sympathy but sympathetic presence; she wanted me to be with her. Would she have valued my efforts to explain her to the world? Yes, though I can’t imagine she thought this required heavy reflection or rhetorical skill beyond sincerity and love.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.