On a single piece of paper write the following message: I am but dust and ashes. On a separate sheet write, “For my sake the world was created.” Place each piece of paper in separate pockets and live from both truths. — Ancient Hasidic Wisdom
Many criticize the demands of the December holidays as reaching for images that no longer exist, or have been idealized for commercial purposes. While advertisers, television shows, and films promote images of loving, intact families who realize the full magic of the season, a great many of us are left with the realities of divorce, family conflicts, seemingly irreconcilable feuds, and broken hearts. Far from being the season of love, many people experience the December holidays as the season of loss, depression, and heart ache. These realities often leave us cynical and searching for the meaning of the holiday season, if there is any, beyond their commercial value.
For many of us, the emotion most often experienced on January 2nd is relief. Good bye to all that, we say to the backside of the holidays May all of us be in better circumstances next year when the cycle returns again.
What, we want to know, is the meaning of Christmas or Hanukkah if we cannot experience love and peace with those we love the most? What is the meaning of the New Year if we cannot reconcile, forgive, and start fresh again with one another?
And while we’re at it, we might as well ask if there is anything deeper than the stock religious answers that are most often presented to us whenever we ask the important questions about the season.
It’s possible that something deeper than commercial or religious interests lies below the season, something that creates the Christmas spirit and kept those candles burning for eight days.
The thing that lives below the dollar signs and the religious imagery is the living entity that we routinely and rather superficially refer to as love. Not the sentimental notion that turns up on Hallmark cards. And not the fantasy state that routinely turns up in the media. The love I am talking about is an unrelenting transformative life force that is leading us to places that, given all the evidence, few of us want to go.
Which brings us to the first revelation about the December holiday season: perhaps this time of the year is love’s yardstick, its measure for how much we have been transformed by its power, and how very far we have yet to go. Love has a destination for each of us, and it will not relent until we get there.
The Opening Door
Love shows up for all of us as a joy. Remember the early stages of love in any part of your life: the partner who fully captured your heart; the day you were married; the job you really wanted and got; the arrival of your first child, or even your second or third. Whatever the origin of the love was, you were filled with excitement, enthusiasm, and happiness. The journey began in innocence and hope.
Ten years down the road, your partner has become a real person, full of his or her own needs and demands that do not necessarily correspond with yours. Meantime, your job has become demanding in the extreme, or boring, or disappointing, or thankless. Your children are living beings who have their own needs, their own ways of thinking, and their perspective on you, their parent. And in all of these aspects of life, there are challenges, struggles, and conflicts. Soon we learn that the only way that any of these parts of life can be restored to softness and joy is by giving more of what is best about you – your love. Giving that love isn’t easy. The work boils down to giving more attention and energy, even more of your concentration, talents, tolerance and understanding. And it isn’t merely the doing that counts, but whether or not you’re your heart is in the doing.
The truth is, the rewards we yearn for in life can only be realized by giving more and more of your love. In the process, one thing becomes very clear. What started out as easy – the romance of early love – turned into a process in which you lost yourself and many of the illusions about who you are, and what love really is. The place you eventually find yourself is very different from the place where this journey began. What happened to me? you correctly ask. Love is what happened to you.
Like a river of unimaginable power, love is a living force that has a distinct destination in mind. The destination is your perfection. Its nature is to make demands of you that are both relentless and far beyond your capacity to achieve. Love pushes you to live as your best self – not your “better self,” meaning not better than you are today, nor better than you will be tomorrow. By best self, I mean your perfect self. That is a state that none of us can consciously fathom, much less sustain. Only love can see that goal of perfection, or knows the way to its realization. In this way, love is the ultimate teacher and guide. And ultimately, all of us are forced to make an archetypal choice: Whether we will pull back and retain our small identities and sense of who we are, or surrender to the great sculptor that is love.
It’s not an easy choice and most of us are forced to make it — in one or another area of our lives — every single day. Love is perfection itself. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for any of the rest of us. Love seeks to make each of us in its own image. In its dedication to this singular goal, love is relentless. That is its nature. And it does not accept excuses.
If you want proof of what I am saying, just ask any parent. Every father or mother who watches his or her child suffer asks himself, or herself the same questions: Could I have done better? Did I teach my child ways of being – either by what I said or what I did — that limited his or her happiness, or created the basis for his or her current suffering? Inevitably, we ask: Did I fail my child?
These questions sear the heart and bring it to breaking point. They are asked because our love for our children forces us to do better, which is to say, to be more loving, more understanding, and more empowered against anything, or any one, that might challenge their happiness. Even to the degree that you do love, or are understanding, or feel empowered, love will arrange the circumstances in which you will be asked to be more, to develop yourself further, to take those steps toward a perfection that you will never achieve in this lifetime.
Of course we fail. And in the process, I am revealed to myself as but dust and ashes. And it was love that showed me this.
Love Reveals And Redeems
Love humbles us with truths that, sooner or later, we will not be able to deny. At the same time, it elevates us by the degree to which we have loved at all.
Love forces us to see our imperfections, illusions, desperate selfishness, anger, limitations and, yes, even our pure evil. If your love is strong enough, it will show you the evil that has come down through the generations of your ancestry. It will reveal how your parents taught you to respond to your pain, humiliations, and desires with behaviors that are inherently selfish, arrogant, and false. Love, if it is true, will strip you of your illusions, one by one, and leave you feeling as humble as dust.
But it is only when we are truly humbled that we are deeply true. And in that irreducible truth, we are innocent, pure, and most beautiful. And in that state, we are redeemed and reunited with our Source.
But even before such a reunion comes, love provides blessings that are the greatest that life can offer: True union with your partner; moments of tenderness, connection, and love with your children; periods of self-expression that flow from your heart; the beauty of being, if only for a moment, who you truly are. Love tells us something like the following: You have failed to reach the perfection that I have demanded of you, but you are beautiful and ennobled by your trying.
How is it possible that this awesome life force could leave us feeling both a failure to all that we attempted in life, but at the same time can reveal us in our most simple, irreducible beauty and courage?
Only something inherently Divine could accomplish such a profound paradox. Such is the unique and very special nature of love.
Restored To The Image And Likeness
The sages of the Jewish tradition expressed that awesome paradox so beautifully when they gave us a simple instruction. Write down two paradoxical truths on two separate pieces of paper. On the first piece of paper, write “I am but dust and ashes.” On the second, write, “For my sake the world was created.” Place each piece of paper in separate pockets and live from both truths.
The question is how – how can we live by these two seemingly paradoxical truths? How can the paradox be reconciled and brought into harmony in a single life? Only love, with its awesome transformative powers, can bring those two truths into harmony in your life.
Genesis tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. This is love’s ultimate destination. Only when we are stripped of all that is false, all that is illusory, temporary, and separate from the Source are we ready to be restored and reunited with Love.
For my sake the world was created, so that I might remember and become who I really am.