Learning From Loss

When painful loss occurs in our lives, we want to make some sense of it: Why did she get so sick? Why did I lose my livelihood? Why can’t we conceive a child? Why did he die? In his new book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” (Riverhead Books, $23.95), David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood, begins by asserting that during periods of great pain, we tend to ask the wrong questions. Whether consciously or not, we search in vain for an answer to the plaintive “why” in order to gain some measure of control over what has made us so powerless.

“God,” Wolpe writes, “gives this privilege to no one.” When the author’s wife was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently rendered infertile by it after the birth of their daughter, he began “a quest of my own — not for an answer but for an approach. I was not searching for a why but for a how: How do I make this loss meaningful? Could I, with the powers of my own hand and heart, with the help of those whom I love, turn a painful, inexplicable loss into a generator of purpose and of hope, even of blessing?”

“Making Loss Matter” is not a practical how-to book or a groundbreaking theological treatise. Despite many brief and affecting forays into Talmudic lore and biblical narratives, the book is designed as an informal conversation with a broad, multidenominational audience. With a liberal use of personal anecdote, others’ experiences, metaphor and more than an occasional nod to the signposts of modern culture (Internet chat, Star Trek and our culture’s worship of youth all rate a mention), Wolpe’s intention is to engage the reader in a serious but accessible meditation on how to live meaningfully, despite the inevitable blows that threaten us with bitterness or despair.

Growth comes through pain, he argues. “Without loss, one remains a child.” In broad chapters titled “Home,” “Dreams,” “Self,” “Love,” “Faith” and “Life,” Wolpe explores how human connection, sacrifice, responsibility and the acceptance of loss as the price of an engaged, fully lived life will help us to wrestle with impermanence and tragedy.

One of Wolpe’s strengths as a writer is that he’s an erudite reader. He has a pleasingly eclectic well to draw from, so references to Somerset Maugham and Rabbi Akiva are handled with equal deftness.

Another is a fairly reliable gift for literary turns of phrase. Wolpe has a facility with language that often lends poetic and emotional heft to prose which may otherwise sit woodenly on the page (as is too often the case with “inspirational” books of this genre). In a chapter titled “Faith,” he writes: “When I pray, I try to break my heart … Prayer is not about the accuracy of the ritual but about offering up one’s heart. It is not that God, or the world, needs one’s heart, but that we need to be able to offer … Prayer is the moment we agree not to hide.”

Those readers familiar with Wolpe’s books may be surprised by the degree of personal disclosure here, but the book is enriched by it. The author’s recounting of his vulnerability to loss and candid descriptions of his struggle with faith and the existence of God lend his musings a measure of authenticity and accessibility that might have been obscured behind a more formal and distant rabbinical voice.

Religion, he writes, “dooms itself to irrelevance” and “loses its central mission” when it falls into the clumsy trap of attempting to defy those simple things we know to be true: Life is not fair. Some “whys” are essentially unanswerable. Religion without reason cannot provide an explanation of the natural world. Our bad and good behaviors are not laboriously weighed and counted in order to determine the fate that befalls us.

For readers struggling with doubt and the elusiveness of faith, Wolpe will prove a compelling voice because he combines a belief in the importance of spiritual searching with the admission that certainty and clarity often elude him, too. Still, he insists, the search itself enriches and elevates our lives, even if the spiritual destination of it is only glimpsed intermittently.

As he acknowledges in his introductory chapter, the questions Wolpe wrestles with here are not new but, rather, are “recurrent questions.” The appeal of “Making Loss Matter” is not that it is philosophically ambitious, but that it explores those timeless questions in an affectingly personal, modern voice which is well-versed in the spiritual and cultural vocabulary of our times.

“Faith,” he writes, “is not denying that death is tragic; it is insisting that it can carry lessons, that it can bring meaning into the lives of those who remember.”

Author Rabbi David Wolpe

‘My Hardest Struggle Is the Struggle for Faith’

Author and Rabbi David Wolpe found himself rewriting the manuscript that would become his latest book, “Making Loss Matter,” as events in his own life began offering immediate lessons about pain and coping which rendered his earlier drafts irrelevant. After their daughter’s birth, Wolpe’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. Despite her victory over her illness, it left the young couple unable to have a second child. Their life together was suddenly rocked by fear and loss.

“The book became so personal,” Wolpe said in a recent conversation with The Journal, “because I no longer had a choice in the matter. I couldn’t possibly write it any other way. For example, some early drafts in the book had some pages addressing the pain of infertility. This was written at a time when my wife was pregnant. I had no personal experience with it, and that portion of the book was somehow flat. My editor suggested that we leave that part out, and after rereading it, I agreed. I never dreamed at that time that later, after my wife’s cancer, we would be dealing with that exact form of loss.”

In both his book’s final draft and public talks to his congregation at Temple Sinai and elsewhere, Wolpe shares this painful chain of events in his family’s life in service to his larger message: the importance of extracting meaning from personal loss.

“Instead of speaking from what I had learned, I spoke about what I felt. Having had that loss has made me much more open and less cynical.”

Well before that, Wolpe said, he had to learn the pulpit rabbi’s art of “speaking to 1,000 people as if it was a one-on-one conversation.” But until recently, he was always partially obscured by the mantle of “rabbi.” Discussing his personal experiences behind the pulpit and in print does, he said, make him feel a bit “exposed and uncomfortable, even while it has its own comforts. People’s responsiveness to it has been very rewarding … Even so, it’s a bit weird. For the first time, I’m standing without the pulpit in front of me.”

Describing his latest book as “a companion to loss,” Wolpe said that a key element of the book’s message is that “it’s important we extract what value there is to be had in that loss, to consider what was valuable in that person and find a way to use it to continue one’s life … to create meaning.”

Essential to a meaningful life, he added, is the forming of deep human connections, not the false, fleeting “communities” free of real long-term commitment that seem to substitute for it in modern American life, whether it be on the Internet or elsewhere.

“In the same way that lighter, more superficial entertainment drives out more serious entertainment, so does lighter, more artificial community replace real, substantive community,” which is more enriching and more complex.

Certain American cultural myths, Wolpe said, are antithetical to a realistic grappling with that complexity. “There’s the notion that natural means healthy,” he said, “and that every problem has a solution. There’s a myth that love is exclusively about flowers and hearts and ease and joy, and a belief that judgments and demands and responsibilities are negatives.”

The courage to engage in life — despite its impermanence and tragedies — comes from faith, he said, and Wolpe is candid about his own difficulty in sustaining it.

“My hardest struggle is the
struggle for faith, which, of course, I am still in,” he said. “It constantly needs to be renewed. It’s essentially the struggle between my head and my heart.” — Diane Arieff, Contributing Editor