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Living in the World

“I Just Can’t Talk”

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Got questions? Rabbi Rami has answers.

I’ve stopped talking. Literally. I woke up one morning and I just couldn’t speak. According to my doctors there is nothing wrong with me physically or mentally. I’m not unhappy or frightened or anything unusual. I just can’t talk. Why do you think this is happening to me?

Perhaps you have nothing to say that is worth saying. Most talk is mindless babble. Maybe you’re tired of it. Since you are writing to me you haven’t lost the ability to communicate, so you needn’t fear being cut off from the world. Appreciate the freedom your silence allows you. Limit your written communication to those thoughts and insights that really matter to you and that might be of help to others. Keep them in a journal and see how they deepen as your silence matures. And while you have been liberated from the outer chatter, begin a meditation practice that frees you from the inner chatter as well.

Can people live without some assurance that things will turn out OK in the end? Heaven and hell provide such assurance. So does karma. So does the notion that evolution leads to higher levels of consciousness. So does Martin Luther King, Jr.s belief that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

But what if there is no heaven or hell, no karma, and no arc? What if evolution is simply adaptive change over time without any direction or goal? What if life lacks all meaning and purpose? What if cosmic justice is a pipe- dream and hope is a scam? What if there is no refuge from the stark reality of it is what it is? How do you live then?

Let’s imagine for a moment that there is no reason for things. What changes? COVID-19 is still raging, while racism, violence, and fascism still fester unchecked. With or without a reason, reality is reality. I think things happen because the conditions for them happening are such that nothing else could happen. If I’m right, the only response to situations we don’t like is to change the conditions that make the situations possible: Follow the advice of reputable medical experts; identify and root out racism in your life and your community; learn how propaganda works and free yourself from its influence. None of this is easy but attempting it will give meaning to your life even in the midst of madness.

I keep hearing about white fragility. It’s defined as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted with information about racial inequality and injustice.” It sounds like white people feeling guilty. If solving racism is about making privileged white people feel guilty, the endeavor is probably doomed. What do you think?

I suspect white fragility is a way for privileged white people to maintain their privilege while pretending to struggle to overcome it. If white people have to overcome their white fragility before they can end racism, we can expect decades of expensive, self-satisfying, and self-righteous white fragility therapy programs coexisting with white racism and racist policies. What we need is a transformation of consciousness that shatters the illusion of “othering” that feeds racist and ethnic hatreds of all kinds. Very few of us can make the transformation from “me against you” and “us against them” to “all of us together.” But that doesn’t mean we are powerless to create a better—albeit still imperfect—world. While racists will, I suspect, always be racist, racist laws can be repealed and replaced by new laws that promote the free and full enfranchisement of all people. America can change even if many Americans can’t.

This is the time of year when I go “church shopping.” No matter where I go, however, I find the same shallow spirituality, self-congratulatory affirmations, and self-righteous morality. Isn’t it time we outgrow organized religion?

We humans are social animals. We like to belong to teams, tribes, and packs. Organized religion is just one way we do this, so I don’t think we can outgrow organized religion per se.

What we can outgrow is the xenophobic psycho-sexual-spiritual-economic-class-race narcissism around which too many religions organize. My vision for organized religion is local communities gathering to ask and hone their questions about life rather than to affirm and protect their answers; to lift one another up rather than find excuses why some should be kept down; to promote doubt and humility rather than certainty and triumphalism; and to cultivate awe, wonder, and ecstasy rather than fear, indifference, and horror. If you can find a church like this—join it!

My son took his own life less than a year ago. I’m so angry with him for punishing me this way that I fear I will never forgive him, but everyone tells me I have to forgive him if I am to get over this. I would appreciate any advice you have to offer.

I can’t imagine what you are going through, and I profess no great insight regarding it. But if it is advice you seek, here is what I can offer: First, your anger is normal. Second, never listen to what “everyone” tells you. Third, you will never get over your son’s death nor need you; in fact, I have no idea what “getting over it” even means. Fourth, I wonder if the person you fear you cannot forgive is yourself rather than your son. Can it be that you harbor the notion that you could have prevented his suicide? Can it be that you cannot forgive yourself for failing to do so? I suspect this would be true of me if I were in your situation. Your son didn’t die by suicide to punish you. He died by suicide because at the moment he did so he had no other option: His suffering was overwhelming, and he could see no other way out. If you can focus on his suffering rather than your anger you might find that compassion replaces anger, and in this way discover that while you can’t get over your son’s death you can live with it.

I’m a soldier in the War on Christmas. I greet people with “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas” even when I know they are Christian. I put a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Christmas trees are for Druids.” I find Christmas offensive. But I’m tired of being a grinch. What can I do to get over this?

What you have to “get over” is yourself. I understand that holy days can be so co-opted by politics and commercialism as to mute their true meaning, but your reaction isn’t about the true meaning of Christmas, it’s about your need to let Christians know that you are too smart and clever to be trapped by Christmas. Your behavior, however, suggests just the opposite: You are completely trapped! My suggestion is this: Spend the next five Christmas seasons in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. On the sixth season stay home and wish someone merry Christmas. Hopefully, by then you will have left the war and joined the peace.