Is Love Sometimes Like “dying a little”?

April 19, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured

by Julia Caroline Knowlton

Can we understand love by considering our experience of it as “dying a little?”  Is love sometimes an act or expression that sacrifices my life through a “giving-over” to yours?  In loving, do we surrender our precious vulnerability?

Unsettling notions reveal truths.  A rabbi once taught me that love is the constriction of the self in service to the other.

In French, the word for love is l’amour and the word for death is la mort.  All nouns in French are either masculine or feminine.  There is no neutral.  Love (l’amour) is masculine and death (la mort) is feminine.  The two words sound eerily alike.  I amuse my students when I teach them how to differentiate the pronunciation: “L’amour requires you to “pucker up” a little while you say it, whereas la mort does not.”

Loss is irrevocably bound to our experience of love.  Life begins with a first separation as the child leaves the mother’s body and is cut off from it.  Nursing can then be seen as a remarkable duet between mother and baby, hearkening back to that lost union.

The longing you feel for the one you love hurts.  The French call orgasm la petite mort (”the little death”).  Lust is the primal urge to erase physical boundaries that separate two people.  The blurring of boundaries that constitutes sex may be understood as a powerful remembrance of symbiosis between mother and infant.

In more concrete contexts, we can see that loving the other often requires a literal depletion of the self.  Maternal love relentlessly demands “a little dying” through emotional and physical fatigue.  Making scrambled eggs in the pitch black on freezing cold mornings when you feel bone tired.  I have heard mothers say “I feel like these children are sucking the life force out of me.”  And to an extent, they are.

There is true nobility to this “little dying.”  My closest colleague lost his wife to gastric cancer almost one year ago.  I watched him age before my eyes as he slaved through her diagnosis, treatment, passing, and burial.  All the while he took care of their young son and daughter, and did not complain.  And he continued to teach his students throughout the entire ordeal.

Another colleague of mine hauled several huge student suitcases up a narrow, 85-degree Fahrenheit stairwell in the TGV (train de grande vitesse) in Avignon, France, despite the fact that he suffers from severe vertigo. He did this because several students were ill. While he did that, I stood with a sick young student who clung to me for hours at the bottom of that same stairwell. We were packed standing like sardines. Some French teenage boys stared at my student-a tiny shy girl-with bemused curiosity until I explained to them that she was ill.

Is love sometimes like dying a little?  I think so. If we do not run from it, this understanding of love offers us a glimpse of the sublime.

Copyright 2009 Julia Caroline Knowlton


My Last Cancer Treatment

August 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

By Rabbi David Wolpe

In 2003 I suffered a grand mal seizure followed by the diagnosis of a brain tumor. After a 10 hour MRI assisted brain surgery and a year on anti-seizure medication, life calmed down. In 2006 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had months of chemotherapy. Now after two years I am completing Rituxan, a follow up on the earlier treatment that is intended to extend remission.

Recently I had the final infusion. But I was not at all sure that pulling away the safety net was a cause for celebration. My doctor poked his head into the curtained chamber to assure me that he expected a long remission. Kind of him, but what could he say?

Remission is cancer’s suspended animation. The renegade cells are poised to return but no one knows when. It could be a month or a decade; for my type of lymphoma (one of the more than thirty varieties of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) there is no cure. So I am stuck in what Dr. Seuss — in a book I used to read to my daughter — calls “a most useless place. The Waiting place….”

I have been here before; my wife was diagnosed with cancer when she was 31. Our daughter was ten months old, and we waited. Following my brain tumor and surgery, we waited. We thought then we were done. No more bullets in the chamber. We felt safe, but tentative.

A swollen lymph node was the first warning of this new cancer. A biopsy confirmed our unspoken fear. It seemed incredible, overwhelming to think it was happening again, happening anew. The doctor called me at work. I came home to tell my wife and she was in the shower. I walked in fully dressed and we held each other; our tears combined with the cascade of water.

I had the strange, surreal experience of hearing my congregants’ shock that this could happen to the family of the Rabbi — as though professional piety was a shield against disease. As though God played favorites.

Right before my brain surgery I appeared in front of the congregation and asked them for their patience and their prayers. Three year later I was standing before them, bald. I witnessed the realization in their eyes that there are no guarantees, no protected people. No one is safe.

At moments, my wife and I will look at each other and understand the unspoken. We have both been scared, on and off, more and less, for a long time. And now with the end of treatment we are scared anew and waiting once more. Well, what now?

Do you live as if remission will go on forever? Or do you allow the thought of death to be before your eyes always, so as not to waste a precious moment of life?

Every patient is surrounded by people assuring him “you will be fine.” A woman in my congregation told me, with a sage look, “You are going to be ok. I know these things.” I told her I would feel more comfortable if she had foreseen the cancer in the first place. Statistics are meaningless. Neither my wife nor I had risk factors. No one knows. We’ve rolled snake-eyes too many times to count on breaking the bank.

What have I left undone? That marching song of purpose is quickly undermined by the whisper of nihilism: so what if you’ve left something undone? Will the world really be poorer for that article, that book unwritten? Then I hear my own voice counseling others, love more, care more, risk more, be more thoughtful.

One afternoon in the middle of chemo, when my hair was gone and most of my energy with it, my wife was bringing our then 9 year old daughter home from school. I heard my daughter say as the door opened, “Is Daddy on the couch again?” Nothing has ever made me sadder than those words.

There may be stem cell transplant in my future. There may be a new regimen of drugs. They are always ‘in the pipeline’ I am told.

For now I am just waiting. I am trying to find my own way through this because, inevitably, I will be asked how I did it. Rabbis are supposed to be figures of authority and calm. It was hard enough to reassure my congregation that a fickle universe does not mean that God is absent. That belief does not indemnify me against adversity. That my faith through all this is unshaken. How does one live, Rabbi, is the question my congregants ask, of not so directly. Tell me, Rabbi — it is your job to know.

My answer, I now realize, is: Live as if you are fine, knowing that you are not. Death is the overriding truth of life but it need not be its constant companion. My safety net is gone. I feel, as all people in remission do, that each time I fly my hand may slip from the trapeze. But to live earthbound is to give the cancer more than it deserves.

I was never taught that God promises us forever. Each day is graced with beauty, with the certainty that this world is not all. I am not owed more years. I do, however, desperately wish for them.

I am grateful for the time I have been given. I am scared it is running out. And I pray with a new intensity — not that I will be promised a cure, but that I won’t waste my waiting in fear. I owe it to my family, my community and to God not to be done before I really am done.

Named the #1 Rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California. Previously he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, The American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and he currently teaches at UCLA. Rabbi Wolpe writes for many publications, including regular columns for the New York Jewish Week,, as well as periodic contributions to the Jerusalem Post, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. He is an ethics columnist for Campaigns and Elections Magazine and a monthly book columnist for L.A. Jewish Journal. He has been on television numerous times, featured in series on PBS, A&E, as well as serving as a commentator on CNN and CBS This Morning. Rabbi Wolpe is the author of seven books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. Rabbi Wolpe has a new book coming out on September 16 entitled Why Faith Matters, A Personal Faith Journey And Response To The New Atheists.