Redemption Story or Contamination Story?

Parshat Terumah
March 4, 2017—6 Adar 5777

            There is a woman in our congregation, a great grandmother, who is a force of nature.    Every year she spends four weeks teaching Israeli children in Tel Aviv how to speak English. Recently she was in Israel, again, doing her thing, an ageless wonder. 

            All was going well.  She had spent three weeks doing her teaching, and she was loving it.  Then one day she went to an arts and crafts fair in Tel Aviv.  One of the artists made personalized name plates, the kind that could be attached to the bedroom door of a child.  She ordered two plates, for her two great grandchildren.  The artist said she would paint them and personalize them, come back in twenty minutes.  Our member was walking around the fair, enjoying the various booths, when she slipped on a piece of carpet that was uneven and fell hard on the ground.  She broke the bone between her shoulder and her elbow in her left arm.  In tremendous pain, she was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Tel Aviv, but not before asking one of the good Samaritans who attended to her if she would take this cash and pick up the painted name plaes for her two great grandchildren.

            At the ER,  the Israeli doctors casted her left arm, from shoulder to finger tips, in a big, heavy cast.  She was prescribed serious painkillers to be taken around the clock.  She could not complete her teaching or the rest of her time in Israel but had to come back to Boston as soon as it was safe for her to fly home.

            I visited her in her home this week, and I walked away with an important lesson about the meaning of life.  Namely, there are the facts that happen to us, the raw facts of our lives.  And then there is the interpretation we give those facts, the meaning that they add up to for us, the narrative that emerges from those facts.

            I might have thought that she would be bitter.  Those facts could have given rise to a bitter narrative.  She was trying to do good in the world. To volunteer her time by teaching children.  Her life was literally upended.  She was in pain.  She can’t sleep the way she likes to sleep, can’t exercise the way she likes to exercise. She had to cancel a planned trip to visit a granddaughter in Ireland. She could have complained.

            But strikingly, even though all those negative facts are true, she did not complain at all. Rather, she said she felt profoundly blessed. 

            I am so blessed. El Al was so kind to me on return flight. When they saw my condition, they gave me an extra seat for free to make me as comfortable as possible.

            I am so blessed. I have two adult children and their spouses in the area who are so loving and kind to me.  They visit. They call. They check up on me. I am the luckiest mother in the world.

            I am so blessed.   I have doctors and nurses who have given me great care.

            I am so blessed.  I am a rightie, and I broke my left arm, but I still can use my right arm.

            This was not cognitive dissonance.  This wonderful woman really meant it.  She felt blessed.

            What would it mean for us, if we could go through life, with this kind of lens? 

            A writer named Emily Esfahani Smith has just published a book called The Power of Meaning.  Her central question is: how do we build lives of meaning?  One of the important parts of the answer is what she calls storytelling.  All of us have facts happen to us that can be hard and sad.  Nobody gets facts that are all happy, happy.  Everybody gets facts that are mixed.

 When we have a mixed bag, we can create from those same facts two very different kinds of stories.  One is what she calls a “redemption story:”

In these stories, the tellers move from suffering to salvation—they experience a negative event followed by a positive event that resulted from the negative event and therefore gives their suffering some meaning. (pages 108-9)

In the redemption story, we move from bad to good. The opposite of the redemption story is what she calls the “contamination story.”

In these stories, people interpret their lives or life events as going from good to bad….People who tell contamination stories…tend to be more anxious and depressed, and to feel that their lives are less coherent compared to those who tell redemptive stories. (p. 110)

            When facts happen to us, what story will we write on the basis of those facts?  That is the question at the heart of Megilat Ester that we will be reading next Saturday night.

            The raw facts of Esther’s life are hard and sad. Her parents are both dead. She is that most vulnerable of people, in the Bible and in life, an orphan.  She happens to be physically beautiful which accounts for her rise to be the chosen replacement wife for King Achashverosh after Vashti is fired.  But being the King’s wife must also have been deeply painful.  This was not a normal marriage. He is not a normal husband. She has not seen or heard from him in a month.  She is part of a harem. Ancient kings had lots of women. Esther was one of them.  Although she is his wife, in name, it is such a distant, artificial marriage that she fears he might execute her if she wants to see him without his having summoned her first.

            Then there is the whole dimension of brokenness at the national level.  Esther is a Jew in a time and place when it is not safe to be a Jew.  Haman has the ear of the King, and he was able to get the King to promulgate a decree that the Jews were to be killed, and their property confiscated.  She is so anxious about being a Jew that she conceals the fact that she is even Jewish.  Her very name in Hebrew, Ester, means hiddenness.

            The raw facts of Esther’s life are the opposite of a pretty picture. She has no father. No mother. No real husband. No children.  She is a plaything of a powerful and erratic king who serves him at his pleasure.  And, she is a hidden Jew, a marrano, at a time when there is an extermination decree directed against the Jewish people.

            Our life is not about raw facts.  It’s about what we do with those facts, the story that we tell as we weave those facts into a narrative of meaning.

            Mordecai sends Ester a message: approach the King and intercede for your people. I can’t.  He hasn’t summoned me in a long time.

            Then Mordecai’s line, that persuades Esther, that is the key to the whole megillah, and that is the key to our life too:  mi yodeah im leit kazot higiat l’malchut, who knows if it was not for just this moment that you are where you are, you are what you are, you are a queen, just now, to do good, just now. 

            Esther could have weaved a contamination narrative: I am an orphan, a captive member of a harem, and a scared Jew in an awful time.  All life is suffering.

            Or a redemption narrative: I am here, I can take a risk, I can reach out to the King and try to save my people.

            No one gets all happy happy.  All of us get mixed facts. 

            How do we persuade ourselves to write the redemption story?  In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith makes the case that how we choose to view our narrative actually influences how we live our life.  Smith tells of a study conducted by the famous Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, who examined the productivity of university call center fundraisers.  These are people who are paid by the hour to interrupt you at dinner on week nights and get you to give money to a school.  Grant wanted to know what, if anything, would inspire them to be more or less effective.  For the study the fundraisers were divided in half.  Before they made their calls, half were asked to write about a time that somebody did a favor for them that made them grateful.  The other half were asked to write about a time when they contributed to somebody else.

            The purpose of the study was to discover which story—I received a favor, or I offered a favor—would inspire more energy.  These call center fundraisers got paid the same hourly rate regardless of how many calls they made.  The study yielded a striking conclusion: those fundraisers who saw themselves as generous, that they did something for somebody else, made 30 percent more calls to alumni after the experiment than before.  When you think you are generous, you are generous.  When you think your story is about giving, you give.

            Remember that old Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer?  She could ruin any Thanksgiving feast, any party, any celebration, by lamenting about all that is wrong with the world.  Because she whined about all that could go wrong, she became Debbie Downer.

            But the flip is also true.  My friend, our great grandmother whose left arm is broken, whose vacation was cut short, could have complained about what happened to her. But she sees because she sees herself as blessed, she is blessed.

            Esther could have complained that she is an orphan and part of the king’s harem, but she saw herself instead as advancing the welfare of her beleaguered people.  Her narrative would not be orphan and not be victim but rather risk taker. Because she saw herself as a risk taker, she became a risk taker.

            Nobody gets happy happy. Everybody gets mixed.  When life’s mixed facts happen to us, what story will be tell, what story will we live? Shabbat shalom.