Jay Michaelson
Three Jewish Books on Sadness, p. 4

This is, in part, exactly what Greenspan advises. She invites us to stop criticizing our dark emotions, and realize truths like AWhat my grief says about me is that I am open, tender-hearted, and loving.Ē (Thatís just an example, of course.) She, too, invites conscious breathing and locating emotions in the body -- a process that I was sure was ridiculous until I actually tried it and found that it worked. And she also recognizes that, for many, simply using emotional language, which can seem pat or touchy-feely, may be the greatest barrier of all. For example, one of her exercises is a set of three simple prayers: Help me, Thank you, and I surrender. Regarding the last, she says, it Asounds wimpy, but itís one of the most powerful prayers I know.Ē Few skeptics will probably pick up a book called AHealing Through the Dark Emotions,Ē but itís still good to see the author hasnít taken leave of her senses.

Reading these books, and writing my own, I have paused to wonder why it is that people read them. What are they looking for? Greenspanís readers are looking for help. Goldsteinís readers are looking for community. They want to see that they are not alone. And MandellísBwell, if theyíre drawn by the cover and title, they, too, may have therapeutic intentions, but what they find may ultimately disturb more than it comforts. I guess thatís why I liked Mandellís book the best, and why it was published by the least well-known publisher: it seemed the most truthful.

Truth, I think, is what I am looking for when I open these books. Show me how it was B or even, in the case of a literary work, how it seems like it must have been. I would rather read truthful fiction than false nonfiction. I am less interested in advice, in its narrow sense, and more interested in snapshots of grief and portraits of sadness, because those moments are, in their own idiosyncratic ways, achingly beautiful. I read these books for communion.

I would never advise seeking out the shadow. (If you go looking, youíll find it, believe me). We have enough pain and suffering already, without going on some sort of emotional adventure for adventureís sake. But when it descends, it has its own melody and its own rhythm that do not depend on lessons, alchemy, or literary references. Honestly, I donít really care that Ehud struggled with anger in the Book of Judges. Nor do I care about some strangerís process as she moved from grief to acceptance. Iím interested in precisely what Athe marketĒ is not: no simplifying answers, no simplifying narratives B just complicated truth, as artfully and thus artlessly rendered as possible. Jewish teachers often seem obliged to reference sacred text, or holy teachings, which may be appropriate. But when a writer is good enough to make her grief present on the page B not to retell someoneís story, but to make the experience real in words B her presence is far more powerful than any allusion, anecdote, or holy tale.

Alchemy sounds wonderful, but the best writing on sadness is more like magic. Itís an invocation: a summoning up of emotion, followed by a rendering of it into language. In the best of Mandellís prose (as in Pema Chodronís, Milan Kunderaís, and Philip Rothís), there is something real, living in the words. It is hard to define, and it resists the language of therapy. It could be a literary smile on a dog, purely a phenomenon of language and grammar. But it seems almost to breathe.

God has seen fit to manifest in a wide range of emotional flavors. How alive we are, that we can feel this wide range. It ought to be enough, it seems to me, to revel in how we can, despite doubt, feel the energy of emotions in the body, just as, if we are blessed enough to love, we can feel it too. There is a value to linear narratives, which relate the evolution of sadness in time. But there may be a far greater value in its timelessness, its ineffability.

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: Mosh Kashi, nogagallery.co.il

Jay Michaelson is presently on meditation retreat. In 2005, he will be teaching Kabbalah at City College, the Skirball Center, Makor, and elsewhere. For more information, visit metatronics.net.

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From previous issues:

Josh's Jury Duty
Josh Ring

Abraham Mezrich

How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart
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