A friend pointed out to me that a “Harold” appeared where “Daniel” should have been. I had changed the names and obviously missed one–but it wasn’t anyone’s real name. I’m writing to assure you that names and other potentially identifying details have been changed to protect the story’s characters.
As far as I could tell, Daniel was a good father and a successful businessman. He had a marriage that worked well enough and he had a number of good friends to pal around with. But at 40, Daniel had an ache in his heart that was deep and immovable.
We had been talking about his father, who barely acknowledged Daniel’s existence; and when he did, it was to mock and denigrate him, and to push him away. It had been that way for as long as Daniel could remember. When he turned to his mother, looking for support, she would say: “That’s just how he is, Daniel. Get used to it.” And Daniel did get used to it, especially the sense of a burning shame. Though he couldn’t figure out why, Daniel believed that he deserved his punishment.
By the time he reached his teens, Daniel was steadily building his shameful resume, virtually failing in school in spite of a nimble mind, buying and selling drugs, hanging out with what was then known as the “bad elements” of the neighborhood, and twice finding himself in police custody. That was when his father beat him until he bled. There had been other beatings but they had seemed almost dutiful, as though Andrew—that was his father’s name—was fulfilling some unnamed responsibility. When asked about them, Andrew muttered “no big deal. I can’t even remember them.”
This time, the time of the bloody beating, his father was intensely engaged. It seemed personal. Andrew looked as though he had every intention of injuring his son. Daniel was 16, the size of a grown man, almost the same size as his father. He had wanted to strike back, he had wanted to really badly, but he couldn’t. This was his father, after all, and Daniel understood that he deserved what he got. But he also felt ashamed at not fighting back. He was almost a man, wasn’t he?
Listening to these stories during our therapy hours, it was hard for me to maintain any sense of “clinical distance.” I was furious for Daniel. Heartbroken, too. And feeling a little helpless myself. I had remained quiet for a long time, maybe for the first three or four of our meetings. But I was dying to say or do something useful. Eventually I suggested that Daniel bring his father to our meetings. I hoped that Daniel was exaggerating or that I could bring out another side of his father or that they could talk through their difficulties or… well, some way out of this morass. Or maybe I wanted to take on Andrew, myself.
I was sure that the continuing damage created by this relationship had rendered Daniel incapable of trusting his wife or, more immediately, of building a loving relationship with his first, newborn son, David. Daniel teared up whenever he even mentioned David, and he mentioned him often. He was blinded by what he felt would be his inevitable failure.
When I proposed bringing Andrew into our meetings, Daniel was incredulous: “What the hell would I do that for? He’s such an asshole. He won’t come and I don’t want him here.” We talked a bit about the island our therapy had created, and what an achievement that had been for Daniel. How could we let Andrew breach its shores?
On the other hand, Daniel and I both knew that he was stuck in his life, unable to be intimate with anyone, and how any movement away from this impasse might free him up. Even if he and his father fought like two men—not a man and a boy—it might help.
“How,” Daniel whined.
“You never know,” I replied with requisite profundity. “With a little help, your father might be better than you think.”
Daniel felt betrayed. “I thought you understood what a total jerk he is.”
I agreed that he was, but held fast to my proposal, hoping more than believing that I might draw out Andrew’s human side. Daniel continued to stonewall my request. This went on for at least two months, but at last, I gave up. “You win,” I told Daniel.
But it turns out that he didn’t want me to win. I had held the hope that he didn’t dare to have. Now there would be none. “Damn you,” he said. “I’ll bring him in. Maybe seeing him with your own eyes will convince you.”
To Daniel’s surprise, Andrew agreed readily. At first, he mocked the request, told Daniel what a wimp he was for being in therapy, told him that nothing would come of such idiocy. But, having had his say, Andrew would come to my office.
We managed only one joint therapy session, and it took me a while to understand what either Daniel or I might learn from it. Andrew didn’t seem especially angry or mean. That was a surprise. He was critical when he talked to Daniel—or about him. But his criticisms were low key, matter of fact. Mainly Andrew talked about himself, and what a bad shake he had had in life. He talked about his boss and he talked about his wife. He went on and on about his ungrateful children, about the country, and about “the whole damn world.” No one was giving him a break.
For the most part, he ignored Daniel. He wasn’t interested. Every time I tried to turn the conversation towards their relationship or to generate conversation, he ignored me and continued to talk about himself. Daniel, who sat there, slumped in his chair, sullen and red-faced, was almost invisible. I could barely look at him.
The hour came to a close. Daniel was dejected. I felt defeated and wondered where, if anyplace, we might go now.
When Daniel and I next met, he looked like death. He had tried. He had put his faith in me. Nothing. But I had had a few weeks to think and decided that there was something we could work with. First I apologized for failing to move Andrew in any positive way. I focused on Andrew’s total self-absorption, which seemed even more upsetting to Daniel than the criticism. Daniel seemed surprised at first but then agreed. The fact that he didn’t matter, not so much that he was bad, was the worst. We had learned something.
Then I said, “I don’t think I can move your father any more than you can. You’ve been right, all along. It may be time to give up.” This startled Daniel.
“You want me to give up?”
“Yes, I do.
“I thought I had,” said Daniel.
“Maybe not, Daniel. From what I see, it isn’t your father whose ruining your life, it’s your continued efforts—your obsessive efforts—to repair what isn’t reparable that’s driving you crazy.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I can’t give up.”
“Because I wouldn’t have a father.”
“You’d have to confront your sense of failure, and your loneliness. Maybe by accepting the permanence of your loss, you’ll free yourself from the prison of this relationship.”
Maybe I was reaching. Maybe I was wrong. But I believed what I said and repeated the thought in a few different ways.
Daniel was silent. He said nothing for a long time. Finally, he looked at me with a mixture of confusion and anger, on one hand, and what I think was gratitude, on the other. “OK. Let me think about it.”
He did think about it. For the next several weeks, we explored Daniel’s life as though he was a child without a father, an orphan; and we talked about his desire to do better with his own son. Then a month or two later, Daniel’s spirits seem to lift. He didn’t or couldn’t say why, and he certainly didn’t attribute the change to his father’s visit or to our shared realization that he couldn’t and shouldn’t depend on his father changing. Ever. But you could see a change in Daniel in the way he carried himself and in his renewed interest in his business. He began to joke with me and to talk about ending the therapy. At first, I thought to oppose the ending, believing that now, freed from his obsession with his father, he might work on generally liking himself a little more. He said that he already did. So he stopped coming to therapy.
I’d still hear from Daniel from time to time and as far as I could tell, as far as his reports indicated, his life seemed much better.
Then, about 10 years later, Daniel called. His father was sick and dying, confined to a hospital bed, and Daniel had something to tell me.
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you when I see you,” he teased.
For almost all those 10 years, Daniel and Andrew had hardly seen each other, and that was fine with Daniel. Then, upon hearing from his mother that Andrew was dying, Daniel went to visit him at the hospital. His response was instinctive—he realized that he no longer feared his father,. There, on his very first visit, with almost no words spoken, they had taken each other’s hands. Daniel couldn’t tell who had initiated the contact. They sat that way, day after day, watching Red Sox games, until Andrew died. It was, Daniel told me, the most serene experience of his life.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read the Bible, cover to cover. Portions yes. Whole books even. When I was young, no one in my family had any time for the ‘superstitions’ that were included in it (God, divine purpose, chosenness, etc.), and I followed their lead. So over the years, even as a serious student of literature and Western thought, I resisted.
Until now. My brother Ken is reading his ways through a recently published and much acclaimed translation by Robert Alter, and I’ve decided to join him. Just a few pages each day, but I intend to go from the beginning to the end.
I am reading it as a stranger, a curious outsider, knowing its place in our culture, and finally willing to wrestle with its meaning. This should be an adventure.
Here goes: Already on the very first pages, I am struck by the complexity and overwhelming strength of the main character, God. Immediately we learn of God’s greatness (creating the world), compassion (not wanting Adam to be alone), and investment in the continuity of the human race. But I am a little surprised and even amused to learn that the God of Genesis is neither omniscient nor omnipotent–nor a paragon of maturity. God has created Adam and Eve, yet they surprise and defy God almost instantly when they partake of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Then God gets angry. I mean out-of-control angry.
Shouldn’t God have known that God’s creatures would do this? And if an omnipotent God knew the full extent of his creatures’ limitations, couldn’t or shouldn’t God have prevented their transgression? What is the point of all this power if it isn’t directed towards good ends? Why wouldn’t God want his creations to succeed?
But God doesn’t act as I would. Instead God punishes Adam and Eve and pretty harshly, too. She, along with every other woman, will suffer terrible pain in childbirth. Adam will be denied the luxuries of the Garden. He’ll have to work the soil. And in what may be the key moment in this story of human history, their way back to the Garden of Eden will be blocked “by the cherubim and the swirling sword.” Eve and Adam, and their progeny throughout the rest of time will have to work to keep themselves alive—the condition in which we all find ourselves (and which, I have to say, I prefer to lounging around in Eden). Wallace Stevens famously found Heaven to be a pretty stilted place when compared the blooming, buzzing activities of real life. I’d say the same about Eden.
Jumping ahead for a moment, I am sorry to report that God’s mercurial behavior continues throughout the Biblical narrative. For example, the Jewish tribe, the people chosen by the Lord, is constantly besieged, at war with oppressive others who often conquer it, massacre it, disperse it—or riven from within, fighting furiously with each other. Why, if God has the power to stop this, does it go on, right up to the point of tribal extinction? If it is obeisance this God is after, it seems juvenile or sadistic to test your offspring in this fashion. Or maybe these stories reflect God’s inability to create the world God wanted, demonstrating that all sorts of things happen beyond God’s control.
I am mystified that well-educated, religious people immerse themselves in this text and emerge with an exalted vision of this God. How? Some simply suspend rational judgment. Others are slyer. Maimonides, for example, is the central Jewish thinking of the Middle Ages (and some say of all time); and he suggests that God’s intentions and rules are simply incomprehensible to most mere mortals. God is ineffable. Well, that gets you out from under the need to explain.
Brilliant explanatory stories, some more fanciful than others, also fill the Talmud. These stories are meant to interpret for us simpler folks. Some, though, plainly tell us that the Bible’s meaning is just unreadable for most people, no matter how sincere their belief. We need intercessors. Hence our rabbis and priests.
Some simply seem to accept God’s imperfections and, in an amazing inversion of hierarchy, forgive God his contradictions—and then keep on believing in the omniscient and omnipotent powers. That just stuns me.
From the get-go, the biblical narrative is a captivating, compelling human drama. In that light, what are we to learn from it? Some say its primary value rests precisely in its vexing complexity. The practice of reading and wrestling with the text on a daily and weekly basis and deriving personal meaning from it seems like a brilliant practice to me. Likely it has helped Jews, Christians, and Muslims to forge their complex theologies, in ways that have sustained their communities through challenging times. It is a skill worth cultivating in every generation.
The beauty of the Genesis origin story to me is the complexity and ambiguity of its God and God’s odd dominion over human beings. It’s clear, among other things, that people, beginning with Adam and Eve, have a lot of agency in determining their fate. We might not understand everything. And there are certainly limits to what we can control. But the same seems to be true of God; and the dramatic relationship between a powerful but not-quite-omnipotent God, perfectly sets the stage for each of us—individually and collectively. While hoping God will help, there are limits to what we can expect and we have to help ourselves.
There’s a Kabalistic notion called Tzim Tzum that helps me make better sense of this drama. It says that, when God created the universe, God thought it, in essence, too complete. It’s as though God understood that God might be too controlling. Human fate in such a universe was fixed. So God withdrew a bit, leaving some room for human beings to determine at least some of their own fate.
That seems like a profoundly true idea. Given the circumstances into which we are born and raised, given the powerful DNA that governs so much of our capacities and inclinations, it is wondrous that there still remains some room for us to determine our own destiny. God and science concur.
So here’s the delicious irony: While we are expelled—punished—for partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, it is knowledge, thinking, that makes us free and best characterizes the human race. This idea gives me great pleasure.