Big Tent #53
So Hard It’s Easy
Rabbi James Goodman organizes a recovery support group called Shalvah (Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew) that emerged out of an earlier effort started by Rose Mass and Rabbi G in 1981. Shalvah presently meets twice a week. It is bundled with two other programs, Positive Jewish Attention to Mental Illness-Mental Health and Jewish Prison Outreach because the borders are elusive.
He thinks it’s time to tell the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. He’s asking everyone he knows for help, because it’s time. He feels like his community is asleep and the stakes are too high to be quiet.
A room full of difficult stories almost none polite most of them protected in their freedom to disclose by the principle of confidentiality. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is now part of the problem. What to do. It’s the same principle that applies to the discourse at the meetings: Tell your truth but be discreet. It’s a civilized discourse about unsavory pasts and alterable experiences. Regrets and falling down and getting up and on with it. I am transforming by being present.
Breath, air, let it move through, share, be economical with language, above all — listen. In our space a roomful of stories if articulated too much might scare the beejeezus out of someone. Don’t be scared, this is the safest room in town. Everyone says that.
In this room are stories of degradation and pain, descent and most often the hidden movement of ascent present in every story in some hidden or expressed way. We stay with our experience, strength, and hope. If it sounds hard, it is and it’s do-able. It’s life saving and healing and revealing and a release from the confines of what has become too narrow for us: Our former selves. Too small for us now. We do not cure, we transcend.
Our response to the challenges of our lives: We grow.
Thus the spiritual basis of our discourse, it’s not so much about God as it is about the ascendance of this or that over Self-full-ness. It’s not-god. There is a God, it is not-me. That’s as close as we get to a God concept. It’s not theology, it’s story telling for adults. This is my story, it has features of descent, it has features of ascent. It leaves the residue of hope. Jakob J my teacher of theology — you would be proud. I often quote you from one of our first classes: Think of theology as story-telling for adults.
We tell stories. A lot of the stories are gruesome. Most of them are funny. If we haven’t had one when we came in, we all acquire a sense of humor. We learn to laugh. This may one of the most important lessons of the group: Tell the truth but find the funny in it. I suppose funny is a form of detachment, some sort of Buddhistic disengagement with the heaviness of our own tales.
Yeah it’s heavy and true and brutal and we carried around a lot of weight for probably a long time, how good it feels to free it up with laughter. Accept and release. How is it that what might have killed us now makes us laugh? Exactly.
The strange algebra of what we do with talk and experience and breath and communication and truth-telling and real life responses to real life challenges.
We grow. We laugh. We tell some cautious truth. We disengage. We are serious and happy. We glimpse the possibility of a better life and we work toward it. Toward: Another good description of our process. A lot of Toward and How, less What. People do not generally give advice. No one will solve your life for you.
We have lost people, we have found people. We have found more people than we have lost but we do not forget that we lose people too. Beneath the laughter is serious business. I think of it this way: We are sitting in a circle around God. Sitting next to each other on the circle are tears and laughter. They are always in proximity. All of us sitting attentive, one eye laughing one eye crying.
That’s the easy part. We meet twice a week. Drama erupts, lives change, the eclipsing of former ways of being present in every meeting. Every meeting like a chapter in a drama of ascent and descent, the systole and diastole of hyper-awareness. It’s a wonder to witness.
The hard part is outside the room. How to take what we learn in our safety and make it real in the expanded circles of our lives. How to live in community. We talk about that. The goal is not talk, the goal is to live.
What to do with those who want to help? What to do about those who are reluctant to help? Example: We get a couple of bucks from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis that we mostly give back to advertising to the St. Louis Jewish Light. This year, the Jewish Federation trimmed down that money. Are they serious? Read the newspapers. We’re living an epidemic. Time to wake up.