In the Book of Genesis, in the Hebrew Bible, we find a story which is precious and critical to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, and which, at the same time, has troubled the conscience of readers for thousands of years. Abraham, the first patriarch in the reckoning of all three of those monotheistic traditions, hears the voice of God, commanding him to take his son to a certain mountain top, and make of him a sacrifice there. In Genesis, that son is Isaac, Abraham’s only son by his wife Sarah, although in the Muslim version of the same story, it is Ishmael, the elder son, whom Abraham is commanded to kill.
Although in other episodes, Abraham has shown a willingness to argue with the Divine when he believes its judgements to be wrong, there is none of that in this story. Abraham hears, and obeys. He tells the boy that they are going to make a sacrifice together, to fulfill a Divine commandment. Isaac dutifully obeys his father, even carrying the wood on which the sacrifice – his own body – is to be burned. There is some ambiguity as to how much Isaac realizes what is going on, but as they climb the mountain, he points out to his father that they have not brought a goat or a lamb or any other of the familiar sacrificial animals with them. Abraham puts him off; surely by this point, his son has begun to catch on.
When they reach the place of sacrifice, Abraham appears, at least, to be fully prepared to follow through with the heinous act. The stage directions in the Bible are spotty, so there’s often some ambiguity about exactly how this scene or that scene unfolds. But this story gets unusually specific: Abraham goes so far as to tie Isaac up, and to place him on top of the wood that they’ve brought with them, for burning. He gets as far as taking up the sacrificial knife before the Divine voice intercedes again. The command is rescinded; conveniently, a wild ram is caught in a nearby thicket, and Abraham sacrifices that animal instead. In the text, the episode is explained as a test of faith – because Abraham obeyed and was prepared to lose – that is, kill – his son at God’s command, he has proven himself worthy of a great blessing.
Of course, that hardly resolves the matter for most modern readers, and many ancient ones. Leaving aside the grave things it says about Abraham’s character, and the terrifying precedent it sets if interpreted as a model of right action for either Abraham or God, what must this have been like for Isaac. The ancient Rabbis were drawn to this question, and reached a conclusion I believe is pretty easy to justify: that this must have been a profound, life-shaping trauma for the boy. In Genesis, there are three patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But while Abraham and Jacob have chapter after chapter, story after story about their lives and deeds, Isaac has almost nothing – he appears mainly as the hinge between his enormously important father and his hugely important son. And the tradition opines that this must have been because of that trauma, of nearly being sacrificed by his own father. That Isaac’s life was diminished by that experience, that it sapped the courage and inherent greatness that was his birthright, leaving him a shadow of what he might have otherwise been. That is a painful interpretation, and it is such a harsh conclusion to draw about a survivor of abuse or neglect by a parent that I am going to do here something I normally never do: I am going to let you know that a twist is coming, with an alternative way to interpret Isaac’s story. I’m just reserving that for later.
This morning’s message is the annual auction sermon, the topic of which was selected by the winner of this item during the silent auction at our holiday fair last fall – in this case, Arthur Thompson. Arthur, you selected as the text you wished me to preach on a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon, an author and an out gay man, which he titled, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” In that talk, Andrew shares from his own life and the lives of people he has known and met through his work to explore how adversity can shape who we are and how we fit ourselves into the world. Growing up a gay, he experienced bullying that was emotionally destructive and sometimes physically dangerous. Living as a gay man, he experienced prejudice and still a certain amount of physical threat. And his core conclusion is that out of the crystallized moments of his worst mistreatment, he had to find a way to build his own identity and forge his own meaning. The building project of identity doesn’t mean that we’re selecting who we are from some sort of list of raw materials – Andrew Solomon would not say that he chose to be born as he was. But there is still a choosing element – the conscious choice to seek to know ourselves and then to embrace who we are. We build our identities out of the components we find within ourselves, assembling them into a shape which allows us pride and purpose in our living.
The great author, activist, and public intellectual James Baldwin said,
“No one knows precisely how identities are forged, but it is safe to say that identities are not invented: an identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience. It is a long drawn-out and somewhat bewildering and awkward process.”
Building an identity takes effort and sometimes struggle, but the grounding components of it are often discovered in moments of struggle or hardship – and while this wasn’t Solomon’s focus, I would add suffering, in general. And the closely-related parallel process he points to is forging meaning – a distinction he makes from finding meaning, which is more passive, and implies that meaning is always there in its particular form, just waiting to be found. In fact, Solomon argues, and I concur, that meaning, just like identity, requires our active engagement, and its shape is largely subject to the work we do to hone it. Suffering, of one type or another, is universal. To be anything other than utterly overwhelmed by it at all times – or sunk in such denial that we are at risk of falling back into that overwhelm every second of every day – we have to forge meaning that takes our suffering into account, and build an identity that will determine how we approach living in, and changing, the world. One of the most important things to remember in this work is that while it requires making a positive force out of a negative experience, it doesn’t justify the ways in which we’ve been harmed, or the systems of oppression that touch all of our lives in a variety of ways. As Andrew Solomon says, “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”
Furthermore, making meaning out of hardship and constructing a self-understanding from it that propels you deeper into life doesn’t have to mean some sort of beatific non-attachment from all your past experiences. It just needs to motivate you to action, and one of the great motivators in life is anger. Again, as Andrew Solomon says, “You can forge meaning and build identity and still be mad as hell.”
Andrew Solomon wasn’t specifically talking about people who are disabled or become disabled in his talk, but I feel that experience needs to be brought in here because the narrative around disability is so pervasive in our culture. Eli Clare, a genderqueer author and activist disabled with cerebral palsy, points out a destructive pattern in the way folks often talk about “overcoming adversity.” As Eli writes with regard to the experience of disabled people being tokenized and fetishized by able-bodied folks (and please keep in mind that I’m not editing Eli’s words here out of respect to the voice of the author):
“A boy without hands bats .486 on his Little League team. A blind man hikes the Appalachian Trail from end to end. An adolescent girl with Down syndrome learns to drive and has a boyfriend. A guy with one leg runs across Canada. The nondisabled world is saturated with these stories: stories about gimps who engage in activities as grand as walking 2,500 miles or as mundane as learning to drive. They focus on disabled people “overcoming” our disabilities. They reinforce the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind. They turn individual disabled people, who are simply leading their lives, into symbols of inspiration.”
So, in light of this, I need to say clearly that I do not believe the imperative to forge meaning and build identity that Solomon articulates is a simple matter of overcoming – and where it falls into that problematic cultural groove, it has gone astray. Bill Reynolds, an American Baptist minister who was one of my supervisors and mentors when I served as a hospital chaplain, once described to me his confrontation with another pastor who was determined pray his nephew out of a very serious spinal fracture. This young man had lost sensation and motor control over most of his body, and his uncle was determined that they should pray for God to restore his body and his life to they way they were before his accident. To which Bill replied, “My God is bigger than that. The God I believe in can give your nephew a full and meaningful life with his spinal fracture. That’s what I’m going to pray for.” When we are able to do that for ourselves, that is forging meaning and building identity: seeking out the new, full, meaningful life that is possible in light of our hardships – not trying to go backwards, as though they had never happened at all.
The poet Donald Hall wrote a very short poem – just two lines long – called, Poem Beginning With A Line of Wittgenstein. And the first line really is from the famously difficult philosopher:
The world is everything that is the case.
Now stop your blubbering and wash your face.
That is a sentiment that is worse than worthless from anyone else, anyone who does not know your exact experience of pain, first hand. But it is also a sentiment which is almost inescapably necessary from within ourselves at some point or another in life, if we are to move forward into a way of being that is anything other than completely defined by the suffering of life’s worst moments.
In the artistic tradition of Japan, there is a practice called kintsugi, or “golden joinery.” Kintsugi is an approach to repairing broken pottery: the fragments of the original piece are put back together with a lacquer mixed or dusted with gold, platinum, or silver. Once completed, the piece is struck through with lines of eye-catching metal, highlighting the cracks in the original. The fact of the damage isn’t hidden – its emphasized, and beautified. It is a part of the history of the object, and so must be acknowledged and understood.
In one story about this technique, Sen no Rikyu, possibly the greatest of the early Zen tea masters, paid a visit to a wealthy household during his travels. The host had recently acquired a beautiful antique tea jar, imported from China, and placed it on the table in a position of prominence, expecting that it would draw Rikyu’s attention and admiration. Instead, the philosopher gave the jar only a cursory look, and spent most of his visit staring out the window, admiring the motion of a particular tree branch in the breeze. The host was so disappointed that as soon as Rikyu left, he pushed the jar to the floor and it smashed to pieces. His family gathered up the pieces, however, and had them reassembled by kintsugi. Sometime later, Rikyu visited again and immediately recognized the jar, focusing all of his attention on it. “Now it is magnificent,” he proclaimed.
Andrew Solomon closed out his presentation by quoting the gay activist, politician, and martyr Harvey Milk, “Go out and tell somebody.” Life’s imperative I not just to survive, not just to find meaning in your survival, but to live your life in a way that declares what you survived, and affirms the meaning you’ve forged from that survival.
Returning, then, as promised, to the story of Isaac: the interpretation that Isaac’s life was diminished by his trauma depends upon the understanding that his father and his son both were greater than he. Certainly, they each had many more stories recorded about them than he did, and critical, world-changing actions attributed to them, where he did not. They also both were guilty of some rather serious misdeeds. Their greatness was arguably neutral, at best: applying equally to their accomplishments and their failures. Isaac’s father Abraham was an adventurer and religious iconoclast, who, by some combination of faith and poor choices, exiled his first son with the child’s mother for no fault of their own, and nearly murdered his second son who was, again, blameless.
And what is Isaac’s response, to being the son of this man? He finds someone to love, and marries. They build a household, and a family. He is dutiful towards his parents, despite what would seem to me to be an unimaginable strain. So far has we know, he killed no one, fought no wars, took no slaves. Though his parenting of his own two sons is often considered imperfect, there is no mention that he ever inflicted the sort of psychological harm and near physical destruction on his children that his father wrought on him. So it is entirely possible, within the words presented in the Bible, to tell his story this way: Isaac suffered as few children do, and no child ever should, at the hands of his father. And yet somehow, he found a way to stay in relationship with him. Somehow, he made his way clear to form other relatively healthy relationships in his life, and to become at least a modestly adequate father himself, despite the profound limitations of his role-model. Somehow, he lived a life of his choosing, in the face of great pain. And while it is impossible to analyze with certainty a character from an ancient narrative who – by the way – is generally agreed by scholars to be a metaphorical figure anyway, that all sounds like something that could happen for someone who managed to forge meaning, and build identity, out of the painful moments that defined him.