Wrestling with Faith
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Many years ago, my father began his quest to write the next great American novel. He scribbled one sentence and one sentence only before giving up. Unfortunately, it was this:
“Bill was an a**hole; actually, he was a f*cking a**hole.”
I remember being shocked when I read that line. It had never occurred to me that my father would write those words because I never heard them uttered aloud from his mouth. Whereas there is no doubt in my mind that my dad’s day job as a physician treating the homeless of New York City changed the world for the better, his writing career came to a screeching halt after only one sentence, which also, in my humble opinion, was likely for the better. To this day I don’t know if there really was a Bill, if he was an a**hole, or an even bigger a**hole that required more colorful description. But like my father, I, too, have always loved to write, mostly because in my line of work I meet lots of people, and where there are people there are stories. Perhaps that was my father’s attraction, too. In any case, I’ve been told that good writers speak of what they know, so I’ll start with a line of absolute certainty from my own past:
I almost died seven years ago.
2013 was the year without a groundhog or a Superbowl, according to my hazy recollection. What I’ve been told, since my memory from that time is a bit spotty, is that I began the month of February in a downward septic spiral which determined my temporary status as a ventilator dependent pin-cushion, adorned by multiple tubes and wires, during my one month stay as an inpatient at the hospital in which I was employed. As much as I love my work, I can assure you this was not the “on the job training” I had in mind.
When I awakened from my medically-induced nap, I was transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to a general medical floor. Having lost two weeks of time during this critical event, I was still trying to wrap my head around the enormity of what had happened, circumstances of which I had very little recall other than the persistent belief that there was a banjo available for music therapy on every floor (there isn’t). Anyway, within a few hours after settling into my new room, a lovely clinical pastoral student from the Ivory Coast stopped by for a visit. To date I had been visited regularly by 3 different rabbis, including the medical center’s Jewish Clinical Pastor, with whom I was very close. Given that I have great respect for and wonderful friendships with the many pastoral students at the hospital, I am more than happy to receive spiritual support and prayers from anyone willing to share. Despite my family’s concerns that I might become distracted as I independently ate my first meal of semi-solid food at the time of his arrival, I welcomed the visit. I’m generally more interested in meaningful social interaction than eating hospital food, especially tasteless pureed blends sculpted into vegetable shapes on my Styrofoam plate.
As is common in his profession, the pastor asked me the usual questions: How was I feeling? Why was I in the hospital? What happened?
The intention of this last question was clearly to learn what had caused my health status to decline so rapidly. Whether it was due to weeks of heavy sedation or a short-circuited pre-frontal cortex, I assumed he was asking what I was “doing” during my induced coma while the rest of the people in my life waited with guarded optimism. Nonetheless, Pastor Ivory Coast appeared to be a decent man, thus it seemed logical to answer him honestly: “I was talking to G-d”.
To say that my response caused time itself to stop for a moment may be a bit understated. Unlike my family members (who were busy scraping their chins up off of the floor), the pastor perked up and took the bait. He asked what We talked about, and without skipping a beat I replied, verbatim, “I do not recall, but the truth will reveal itself in time.” Once again, silence ensued, other than my chewing, which of course continued unabated.
If there’s one consistent role I play in life, it is that of the constant conversationalist. Thus it was no surprise that we engaged in an animated discussion regarding the challenges of life and how people heal through them. It’s a topic with which I am most familiar given my personal experience and professional observation as an Integrative Medicine Practitioner. In this case, the pastor compared my journey to the story of Jacob’s encounter with an Angel in the Torah’s account of Jacob’s Ladder, although he used the term “fighting” instead of “wrestling” to describe the kerfuffle between them. Despite my previously laissez-faire attitude, I dramatically placed (threw?) my fork onto the cafeteria-issue plastic tray, looked him squarely in the eyes, and told him with profound intensity that Jacob was WRESTLING with the angel as he had wrestled with his faith. And just in case you’re curious, I am most certain that a thought bubble denoting the term “duh” hovered above my head for a few seconds.
Cartoon thought processes aside, I was willing to overlook his word choice given that such errors are common among second language speakers…after all, as a speech-language pathologist (my other profession) I am constantly reminded of the many vocabulary challenges inherent in the English language. In clear disregard of my emphatic linguistic corrections, he continued, several times in fact, to refer to the “fight” between Jacob and the Angel. Shortly thereafter, I rudely dismissed him due to “exhaustion”, which although not specifically articulated as such, referred to my growing intolerance for his disregard of proper word choice.
After he left, my husband - with some trepidation - asked if I had really talked to G-d while I was in the ICU. With the same casual affect as earlier, I explained that I needed time to wrestle with my faith, and G-d saw to it that I found my way home. “I’m here now because He carried me through. Isn’t it obvious?” Apparently it wasn’t.
In sharing this story with a friend of mine, he reminded me that the story of Jacob’s Ladder (Genesis 28) takes place four chapters before that of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Chapter 32, and he asked what I believe to be the connection between the two passages. The best I could offer is that, from my perspective, Jacob’s escape plan after tricking his father, Isaac, into offering a blessing upon himself rather than his brother, Esau, symbolized the human fear of facing one’s own truth, as well as his connection to history and his place in the world. In other words, Jacob was running away from his past, as well as his current and potential future responsibilities. As such, he did not demonstrate trust in G-d (or his biological father for that matter) to guide him towards the Divine Plan that was to be his destiny. In that space of uncertainty, Jacob made choices that he himself questioned, and in order to find resolution, he sought clarity to make peace not only with his relationship to G-d, but by default the Divine spark that was Him and within him simultaneously.
I could, and do, identify with Jacob in many ways. Raised in a family of Allopathic Medicine providers (my father and mother included), and having worked in Western models of healthcare myself, I’ve chosen to pursue a path in Complementary and Alternative Medicine with heartfelt, albeit occasionally reluctant, enthusiasm. At that point in my life I spent a great deal of time trying to condense an explanation of my career into an elevator speech that didn't sound freakishly odd. The truth of the matter is that I myself had difficulty accepting my “alternative” choice after a lifetime of meeting societally approved expectations. Seven years ago I wasn’t confident in my decision, and was prone to revisiting my own sense of purpose in juxtaposition to my parents’ traditional healthcare backgrounds, my husband’s work in software development, my grandparents’ and uncles and cousins’ mathematically measurable careers as accountants, as well as past, present and future explanations to my son, his teachers and his friends’ parents as to what I do for a living. I didn’t understand how to integrate this knowledge of myself into my sense of self, and I was simply afraid of being rejected.
It took me awhile to understand my history and future in the proper combination of recognition, faith and trust in G-d, too. But having lived through several years of being present to others’ comings-in and goings-out from this world, it was inevitable that I would eventually land in the hospital bed rather than beside it, struggling with my own mortality and my purpose incarnate. Only from this perspective could I fully embrace and empathize with my patients’ and loved ones’ healing journeys, as well as understand the impact of holistic interventions in buoying one’s internal strength and lifting his or her spirits. By wrestling with my own fears and doubts, as well as entrusting my life to a Higher Power, I ended up where I belonged: better equipped to be of Divine service both personally and professionally, which was also true to my self, the one uniquely designed by the Universe.
To me, Jacob’s Ladder is more than a tale of life-altering adventures in healthcare, although it does add some depth to my story. This passage saved my life, both literally and metaphorically, physically and metaphysically. I refer to it time and time again as a reminder that choosing how, and sometimes if, to live in this world is a challenge worthy of the effort. The only way I’ve found to lead a meaningful life is to examine my individual path to peace without comparison to others’ respective journeys, regardless of what words they choose to begin their stories. But to do so requires a deference to and respect for Universal guidance and support – valuable tools if you’re willing to ask the hard questions. The truth is, we only get one opportunity to find our place in this beautiful world, and maybe, on the rarest of occasions, a second chance. But that’s a story for a rainier day much earlier in the First Book of Moses…and most certainly, one with less colorful language.