I don’t know how grief feels to you. All I know is how it feels to me. Over the years, as I’ve lost more and more people, I find that grief has become very real, actually physical. I feel the grief in my stomach, in my chest. When it gets bad, I may not feel it every minute, but there are times in the day when it gets unbearable. And yet what we have to do is bear the unbearable, to go on and live and be happy despite these depressing and horrible feelings.
It is impossible to go on. And yet, somehow, we must.
We all have our ways to cope, and I’d like to tell you about one of mine. I go to the table in my head.
I can explain by asking you an extremely personal question: Who is sitting at the table in your head?
Picture yourself at a dinner table. Seated at the table are all of your most beloved people. They could be cherished family members or very close friends. They could be alive or dead. They are the people, whether they still walk this earth or not, who are the most important people in your life, and if you could have an hour or an evening and you could be with all of them, all at once, if you could have all the people you love the most in this world or the next one at a table, who would be sitting there?
Who’s sitting at the table in your mind?
I don’t mean at your holiday table this week, but at your all-time table.
There are a couple of reasons I push this fantasy at you. The first is that when things get truly impossible, I sit at that table in my mind, and it helps, at least for a few minutes.
The second is that this exercise can help you to clarify who really is important to you. Someone asked me, “How many people can I have at the table?” and I was tempted to give them an arbitrary number like ten or twelve, but I stopped myself and told them that it’s their table. Still, if you have an unlimited number of seats, you won’t be honest. And honesty, rock-bottom honesty is what is required here. Without it, nothing is accomplished.
You see, the truth is that we are usually not honest, even with ourselves, about whom we really care. There are people that we are supposed to care about, and care for, and we do, but that doesn’t mean that we love them or even like them in our heart of hearts. And it’s our heart of hearts that I’m trying to get us in touch with here.
The results can be surprising. I found that I have someone at my table that I literally never met, someone who predeceased me, and yet who is so dear to me that I need him at the table.
People have asked me, “What about the seating arrangements? Who sits next to whom?” I hadn’t thought of that originally but it’s an interesting point. And so someone who has done this exercise has two people sitting next to each other who went through a bitter divorce, but now they’re together again, talking about better times when they loved each other.
A friend of mine says: “Of my four grandparents, there is only one who gets a seat at the table. He was the one who talked to me one on one, who didn’t treat me like a kid but asked me my opinions on issues like I was an adult.”
Think about it: He is saying that the people who make it to his table are the people who paid attention to him.
Now, take those who are sitting at the table who are alive. And think through, one by one, what your relationship is like with each of them. Don’t tell me, “We get along just fine.” I want to know if the relationship is real, if you spend time with, and energy on, each of those people, if you pay attention to them.
If the person were sitting at the table, in this beautiful dramatic scene in your mind, you would listen to every word he or she said. But that doesn’t mean you’re paying that kind of attention now.
Of my four children, it always was my son Josh who would come into my room and talk about something, and sometimes he’d say, “You’re not listening.” And I would tell him that I was listening, and I would repeat everything that he’d said. And he’d say, “but you weren’t listening,” and of course, he was right. He knew when my mind was on other things. Now you could say, “Look, he came into your room when you were working and you were focused on something else, so of course you couldn’t switch gears that quickly.” But I was still wrong. Nothing is more important than my kid talking to me.
I want to bring you scenes from two movies about paying attention in our cherished relationships. In one of my favorites, Don Juan de Marco, Marlon Brando is a psychiatrist who has been heavily influenced by one of his patients who thinks he is the romantic hero Don Juan. And Brando comes home and says to his wife, a radiant Faye Dunaway,
“I need to find out who you are.
And she says, “Jack, you know who I am. Who’s brought you coffee for the last thirty-three years?”
And he says, “Listen, I know a lot about dirty coffee cups and I know a lot of facts. But I need to know, all about you.”
“What do you wanna know?”
“I wanna know… what your hopes, and your dreams are. They got lost along the way, while I was thinking about myself. “
She starts laughing and he asks, “What’s so funny?”
And she says, with a laugh of joy, “I thought you’d never ask.”
This scene illustrates what a lot of our relationships are like. We talk to each other all the time. We help each other all the time. But we can go on for years without knowing what’s really going on inside the other person.
I come back to the people at the table in your head, the ones who are alive. If you love them enough to have them at your table, your honest to G-d table of people you really love, then I want to know if you know about their hopes and dreams and fears. Do you know who they really are? Do you know what their concerns are? Are you helping?
Second scene, this one from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Big Daddy, played by Burl Ives, is dying. His son Brick, played by Paul Newman, a former football hero, has withdrawn from life because he is so filled with grief and remorse over the suicide of his best friend. Big Daddy is dying but desperately wants to live; his son Brick is alive but wants to die.
They’re in the basement of their mansion, and it’s filled with all of the accumulated possessions and junk of a lifetime. And Big Daddy finds something.
This is what my father left me.
This lousy old suitcase!
On the inside was nothing……but his uniform from the Spanish-American War. This was his legacy to me. Nothing at all! And I built this place from nothing.
And Brick asks: And that’s all he left you?
Big Daddy says: Yeah, he was a hobo. Best-known tramp on the boxcar circuit. He worked once in a while as a field hand. I’d tag along. Sat … in the dirt, waiting for him. Outside of hunger……first thing I could remember is shame.
I was ashamed of that miserable, old tramp.
I was riding boxcars when I was nine, something you never had to do. And you’ll never have to bury me like I did him. I buried him in a meadow, alongside a railroad track. We were running to catch a freight and his heart gave out.
You know something? That lousy old tramp died laughing.
“Laughing at what?” Brick asks.
“Himself, I guess. A hobo tramp……not a nickel in his jeans. No future, no past.”
“Or maybe, “Brick says, “he was laughing because he was happy. Happy at having you with him. He took you everywhere and he kept you with him.”
Big Daddy says: “I don’t want to talk about that…. Yeah, I loved him.
I reckon I never loved anything as much as that …… lousy old tramp.”
And Brick says: “And you say……he left you nothing but a suitcase…..with a uniform in it from the Spanish-American War?”
“And some memories.”
“And love,” Brick says.
Big Daddy asks, “Did I tell you all them stories about my old man?”
And Brick says, “About fifty times.”
I cite this scene at length because Brick has it right; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire or a hobo. What matters is attention. And that old tramp loved his son, and not even the shame of being poor or the pain of being hungry could diminish the impact of that love and attention. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you are when you’re together. What matters is that you’re together.
There’s a story about an old man who was going through all the boxes in his attic and he found photo albums and diaries. He looked at one of his diaries, and in his own neat handwriting were these words: ”June 4th. Wasted the whole day fishing with Jimmy. Didn’t catch a thing.” He then saw his son Jimmy‘s diary from the same year, when Jimmy was only six, and something made him look up the same date. Large scrawling letters pressed deeply in the paper read: “June 4th. Went fishing with my dad. Best day of my life.”
I don’t want you to be that old man, who then could only think how wrong, how stupid he was. I want you to pay attention now.
And so now think again about the people at the table in your mind who are living. If you are together with them in your heart, do you demonstrate this? Do you spend time with them? Do you pay attention to them as real individuals in their present situations in life?
I’m going to tell you the truth: I have to do better. This year, I have to do better. I hope you’ll think about this and do better, too.
Think about the legacy of Big Daddy’s hobo father. He didn’t leave him a thing, except an old suitcase and a battered uniform and the greatest memories and the most lasting love.
In the movie, Don Juan says, “There are only four questions of value in life:
What is sacred?
Of what is the spirit made?
What is worth living for?
What is worth dying for?
The answer to each is the same – only love.”
Look again at the table in your head and now take the people at the table that have passed on. They sit at your table because they loved you and you loved them. The legacy of the hobo was the love and attention he paid to his son, and he died laughing. Take the legacy of the people who have passed on and pass it on to those who are still alive. The legacy can only be transmitted by paying attention.
Yizkor means to remember but also to recognize, to pay attention. Attention to a loved one is the ultimate prayer of memorial, the ultimate Yizkor.
During these High Holidays, I’ve talked about what we should pay attention to. We have to get our white clothes dirty if we’re going to help others. We must not only run the marathon but also remember the message. We Jewish people know what’s important and sacred. We must be confident enough about our identities to act as Jewish people to save the world. We can’t be Superman if we’re masquerading as Clark Kent.
We have to pay attention to the infrastructure of our lives. Before we go off to save the world, we must exercise caution at home and put out the fires before they engulf us. We have to pay attention to the role America plays in the world; we have to make sure that this role makes moral and not just strategic sense. Before we risk the lives of our soldiers, we must be sure that we believe in what they may be dying for.
We know that our spirits are made from the stuff of G-d. We are the children of G-d. We must care for and protect those closest to us. Of all our roles, to give care to our loved ones is the highest calling.
On the High Holidays, we think about these questions:
What is sacred?
Of what is the spirit made?
What is worth living for?
What is worth dying for?
All the people at the table in your head who have passed on would tell you that the answer to each question is the same – and the answer’s love.