There is an old joke that describes a passerby who sees a man repeatedly hitting his head against a wall. Each time his head hits the wall, the man yelps in pain. Concerned, the first man runs up to him and asks why he keeps banging his head when it obviously hurts when he does so. The man answers, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
This joke is far from being funny, and its real message a telling indictment of the human condition – that some people have such difficult lives that pleasure for them is a lack of pain. For the symbolic man hitting his head, happiness is the absence of sadness.
Tragically, this is the state of affairs for those afflicted individuals who I call the “walking wounded.” Having a “parve” day – where there is no pain – physical or emotional, is a good day. For them, there is no expectation of actually having a wonderful, joyful day – they have given up on that. Like the man who banged his head, nothingness is a positive.
I recognized this state of being in many of the Holocaust survivors I came to know through the very large Survivor community in Toronto. They, like my parents, had experienced immeasurable and unfathomable loss, grief and hardship as teens and young adults. No doubt every day, common situations must have unleashed breath-taking torment and anguish in these hapless souls as they abruptly brought into sharp focus what they had so cruelly lost. The simple act of diapering an infant could trigger searing memories of other beautiful babies – their own children or young siblings or nieces and nephews who were brutally slaughtered by the Nazi predators. An advertisement announcing “Mother’s Day” could transform into a heart-wrenching reminder of mothers and fathers murdered in their prime by bloodthirsty Europeans – both the conquerors and the vanquished – who were no doubt emboldened by the indifference of the world’s nations.
With the passing of time and with therapy, many survivors were able to experience snippets here and there of genuine pleasure in the form of nachat from their children and grandchildren. But their “cup” could never be full, ever. The sweet droplets of joy that accumulated over time would subtly seep out through the irreparable cracks brought on by unassailable grief.
For them and others who have been battered by a torrent of irreversible losses, a day where there was no pain – just numbness, was a “happy” one.
This holds true for those who must deal with chronic or long-term illness. For them, a day – even hours – of not hurting is a cause for celebration. And from their suffering we can glean wisdom. When we say a bracha, for example, before eating an apple, we should take a moment to actually understand and appreciate what we are reciting, rather than mindlessly going through the routine. Someone nourished via a feeding tube certainly would if given the opportunity to eat normally again.
If we have been blessed with an unimpeded ability to do everyday, mundane activities like getting out of bed or dressing ourselves, we should make ourselves aware that we truly are having a good day. Sadly, it takes pain or loss of ability to appreciate that which we took for granted without a second thought.
There is yet another group of the “walking wounded” in our midst, but they are less obvious. They are the men and women who whether they are consciously aware of it or not, prefer to be alone. Most are quite social and very much part of the community- but they are reluctant to be married, or as the case may be, remarried.
My sense is that many were hurt emotionally – some even physically – by the people they trusted most; by those they were connected to who were supposed to nurture them and make them feel cherished, but failed to do so. Perhaps in their childhood or young adulthood, these men and women were overly criticized, belittled, and bullied; or witnessed relatives and friends enduring relentless emotional battering, and subconsciously became reluctant to risk getting stuck in a similar situation.
Their safe choice – a parve existence. For them, silence is golden and alone-ness a blessing. After all, at the end of the day, the absence of pain is pleasure.