My congregation has nicknamed me the “smiling rabbi.” I was lucky to be born with a happy disposition.
Yet, we all know life is never perfect. Authentic happiness demands we also grapple with the unhappy parts of our character. Perfection, as Jewish wisdom teaches us, is reserved for God.
How To Grapple With Them
I have found that great theater is one of the best ways to grapple with these uncomfortable parts of ourselves. When we do so honestly, we can grow into more loving, wiser human beings. But it can be very hard.
This truth hit home for me last week when I saw the play The Dance of Death. Written in 1900 by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, it tells the story of a bleak and spite-filled marriage.
Celebrating Our Anniversary
My wife and I, who are approaching our 10-year anniversary, saw it in an intimate bookstore theater, where you feel literally as if you are trapped in hell alongside the couple.
The intensity and insight of the play made for an interesting car ride home. After a few minutes of shaking our heads in awe and horror, we discussed it.
We recognized the play challenged us with the many uncomfortable truths.
1. We all experience hell: There is a moment in the first half of the play when the husband lets out a primal scream of despair. Absolutely nothing is right in his life.
We have all experienced that feeling. It could be after a broken relationship or a failed job. It could be after experiencing a profound loss. As the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “Time and chance befall us all.” (9:11)
2. We all have times when we blame others for everything: The husband in the play has destroyed every relationship in his life. Yet, he finds a way to blame everyone else for it. Most of the blame falls on his wife.
Even when we do not admit it, we tend to blame others for our poor choices and actions. Little kids do this all the time.
A week ago my daughter dropped her ice cream. I was standing 10 feet away, but I still got blamed for it. I didn’t tell her how slippery it was.
As we grow, we begin to assume greater responsibility. Yet, sometimes the harm caused by a decision is so great that we cannot consciously assume responsibility. So we find someone to blame. (That’s partly why we need forgiveness.)
3. We all tell lies about ourselves to ourselves: Throughout the play the husband and wife explain to themselves the greatness they could have achieved had it not been for the one another.
Marriage destroyed the wife’s budding acting career. Her neediness stopped the husband from advancing in the ranks of the army.
Lying and its cousin — denial — help us avoid the burden of responsibility.
4. We feel trapped in certain circumstances: The house in which the husband and wife live had formerly been a prison. A big set of chains hangs from the wall. It symbolizes the invisible chain tying the husband and wife together.
Ironically, the marriage is only the thing that lasts through the entire play. Their cousin comes and goes. The children never appear. Painting are broken. The destructive marriage remains.
5. We are all waiting for something: The title The Dance of Death hints at one of the plays underlying tensions. The husband and his wife are waiting for each other to die. They see the other’s death as their only path to freedom.
Hopefully we are not waiting for someone to die. But we are all waiting for something.
What Are You Waiting For?
We are waiting for someone to change. We are waiting for just the right person. We are waiting for our kids to grow up. We are waiting for the job that will truly make us happy.
I wish I could give another five-point list describing the way to avoid each of these realities. But that would be like saying I had a solution to the human need to sleep. The only solution is acceptance.
Life is a gift. It is not a blank check. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we need God.