About a year ago, while searching for things to listen to on my impending drive from the Bay down to LA, I happened upon a podcast called On Being. Oh my...this podcast. It is the stuff of life. The bafflingly well read and ever thoughtful host, Krista Tippett, speaks with a variety of thinkers—including philosophers, artists, activists, religious figures, poets, scientists and social researchers—about the things that make us human, that shape our world. I've been slowly working my way through her new book, Becoming Wise, and was struck by a parable she shared that was originally from her recorded conversation with physician Rachel Naomi Remen.
Remen, who recognized and integrated the power of personal story into her approach of cancer treatment with patients, recounted for Tippett a tale of one of the fundamental ethics of Judaism: to "repair the world". Her Orthodox rabbi grandfather told her this story as her fourth birthday present. She shared:
In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.
Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people; to lift it up and make it visible once again and, thereby, to restore the innate wholeness of the world. This is a very important story for our times — that we heal the world one heart at a time. This task is called “tikkun olam” in Hebrew, “restoring the world.”
Tikkun olam is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.
And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. That’s where our power is.
In my years and years of Jewish education, I had never heard this story before. It baffled me and it touched me deeply. The idea that we all of us are healers. And when everyone does small things to make the world as they experience it better, more just, more connected, more curious, more generous, more equitable, more thoughtful and more human, the entire world is transformed.
As I let the message of this parable sink in, I couldn’t help but frame it within the context of my own personal healing, the avenues through which I aim to help heal the world, and the truths that I have come to take as fundamental. One such truth is this: While we certainly have a responsibility to be good to one another and to care for the earth as well, our foremost responsibility is to our own selves. To acknowledge and tend to the light within each of us. We must treat ourselves—mind, body and spirit—with curiosity, tenderness, non-judgment, generosity, and care. This was not something I remember being taught as a child, but is something I now believe to be of utmost importance.
In her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brène Brown makes a bold assertion that we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. I believe this to be true. And so: in order to see and bolster the light in others, we must tend to the light within ourselves. We must meet our struggles with compassion. See the opportunity in our failures. The gifts in our imperfections. The cumulative transformation in our slow growth. The strength in our vulnerability. The perspective derived from our wounds. The absolute necessity of our unique offerings to the world.
We can only begin to attend to our responsibility and power to heal the world by first attending to our responsibility and power to heal our own selves.
By living in ways that bolster our own light, we are poised to genuinely champion the light within others. And. By living each day in our light, we create an energy and model of behavior that imprints itself onto the world. That allows others to step into their own light. And in our wake, the world changes—becomes, increment by increment, more repaired.