by Irim Sarwar
You will search for me? Wherever I am? If there is a way?
Wherever you are. Until the sun dies and the last wind blows through the worlds. Need you ask me? Even now?
—Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay
I looked away from my Kindle app, closed my iPad, and stared out at the sunset through a blur of unexpected tears. Once my sight was clearer and my heart at ease with its emptiness, I reopened my iPad to continue reading, but found myself re-reading the same page until autumn dusk forced me downstairs to make dinner.
My reaction might have caught those who know this proudly self-sufficient, cynical, salty Gen X by surprise. But it won’t have surprised those who know that among my favourite songs are Richard Marx’s Hold On To The Nights, Breathe’s Hands to Heaven, Duran Duran’s Save a Prayer and, perhaps most saliently, Escape Club’s I’ll Be There. It certainly didn’t catch me by surprise, though the intensity did. I am, after all, the girl who has written many letters akin to Lang Leav’s A Postcard in my head.
But me being me, I couldn’t help poking at the ache as I decided between pork chops and chicken for dinner. (Also, why did I have Uncle Ben’s microwaveable flavoured rice in my cupboard? How are my ancestors not haunting the hell out of me?) This felt…foundational, more than a longing for a life partner; it felt like something woven into the essence of my being from the beginning.
As I shoved my jacket potato in the microwave to do its pre-cooking before its time in the oven, I found myself coming back to other times I’d felt the same way: whenever I heard the story of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one, or Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jeremiah 1:5), or reading Psalm 139:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
…finally, I heard the voice of my heart: Seek me. Find me. Hold me.
And I understood. Though this exchange — as most often in our world — expresses that yearning in the context of romantic relationship, it runs much deeper, to our very beginning. The first people we beg, we trust to hold us, love us, seek and find us when we are lost are our parents. A child wrapped in that fiercest of loves knows without doubt that they will be sought, found, and held. Whether or not we are given that unconditional love as a child, that yearning to be seen, found, and loved as we are is a core driver throughout our lives.
The true tragedy of the creation story – whether you view it as an interesting story, canon, or anything in between – is not the eating of the apple; doing the forbidden is so pedestrian it could jaywalk. The real tragedy is the fracture in relationship: between Adam and Eve (within humanity), between humanity and nature (humanity seeing itself above creation/nature), between humanity and G-d (the ‘first’ relationship: Creator/created; parent/child). I will die on this hill: Eden is lost not because of the original disobedience, but the blaming and lying afterwards. Had Adam and Eve owned up and ‘fessed up, rupture would have become repair, with balance and harmony restored.
As we know, that’s not how it went down, and those fractures continue to ripple out and grow deeper. Today, we live in a world where libertarian solipsism, right wing parties, ‘think tanks’ like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and white American evangelicalism tell us it’s all about the individual: individual wealth, individual choice, individual salvation. Individualism is so pervasive, it permeates our healing modalities: ‘love yourself’, ‘fix yourself’, ‘reparent yourself’ as if we are vacuum sealed from our environment. Do all this, we are told, and you will be happy, rich, and forever young.
Well. That’s worked so well for the Koch brothers, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and rich Republican wives, hasn’t it? Aren’t they just joyful little rays of sunshine?
Also, I’ve never seen someone who has grown up in a dysfunctional family suddenly able to love and reparent themselves, then find life a world of unicorns pooping rainbows and Snickers bars.
Yet despite observing and feeling this unhappiness, we continue to worship at the altar of individualism – healing yourself, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the ‘self-made’ millionaire, individual glory. We keep on, even though our language and our stories warn us of the dangers: ‘divide and rule/conquer’; ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’; ‘we must hang together or we will surely all hang separately’; and, from my Punjabi heritage, ‘Ek akela, do gayarah’, or ‘One is one alone; two are like eleven.’ And what else are we told repeatedly? That the first thing an abuser does is isolate their victim from their family and friends.
We know in our bones that community is power and sanctuary. And so, even as we worship the individual, we stumble towards togetherness: the tribalism of sports fans, religious cults, and the greatest Granfalloon (sorry, Kurt Vonnegut) of all: rabid, xenophobic, often religious nationalism.
Unfortunately, our attempts at togetherness are most often an extension of individualism, based on the mistaken idea that being truly connected means having someone else mirror you, and the more people exactly like you there are, the more you are seen, loved, known. Same shirts, same look, same desires, same beliefs, same uncritical patriotism. From the microcosmic attempt to create a child mini-me to macrocosmic Christian mission trying to create a world of mini-mes, tribalism is individualism writ large – togetherness without connection.
Real connection looks more like an ecosystem: it is true unity in diversity, one that acknowledges, delights, and needs the differences among us, our individuality. A tree can’t do what a lizard can; a lizard can’t do what an owl can; an owl can’t do what an ant can. Remember how the pandemic made our human ecosystem visible – carers, nurses, porters, those who stack our shelves, shop clerks, lorry drivers, bus drivers, cleaners…all those we take for granted as being the human infrastructure that make our lives possible.
We bounce from one extreme to the other, afraid of being abandoned or engulfed, but as an ecosystem shows us, being an individual and being part of a greater whole aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re deeply intertwined. It is only when we see each other as individuals, when we are curious about and relish our differences, appreciating and treasuring each other’s different roles that we can come together in any healthy, meaningful way.
Often, when we do love those differences, they carry us in the most delightful, unexpected ways.
Thursday, as I stepped out into the autumn sun, frustrated at how stuck I was in the middle of this piece, I stumbled across a sukkah in Bonn Square in the centre of Oxford. I wished the person at the table selling honey ‘Chag sameach’, picking up a Jewish calendar along with my jar of summer blossom sweetness. As I turned to leave, a Chabad rabbi started speaking, explaining the symbolism of the lulav and the etrog, something I don’t remember hearing when I taught at HA.
Suffice it to say, there are several ways to look at the lulav and the etrog. The rabbi focused on taste and fragrance, noting that the etrog had both; the palm has taste, but no fragrance; myrtle has fragrance, but no taste; and willow has neither taste nor fragrance. Taste is learning and fragrance is good deeds. The four together represent all people, and as My Jewish Learning notes:
Real community is found in their being bound together and brought under one roof.
Everyone. Those who give much, and those who give little; those like us and those completely different from us; those certain and those who are lost; every part of us – our light, our shadow, our love, our rage, our wholeness, our brokenness. The image in my head is from the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country:
And soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase
Though, unlike Cecil Spring Rice’s heavenly land, earthly community’s ways are not ways of gentleness, nor are the paths ones of peace. There is joy, yes, but there is anger, sorrow, struggle, and frankly not wanting everyone in community for myriad reasons: their darkness, their resentment, their difference from us. We want to put all those people on an island where they can hurt each other, and the rest of us can be in community.
But as with loving or reparenting ourselves, it just doesn’t work. We learn and heal in relationship, which includes challenge, fights, and healthy boundaries as well as love, laughter, and connection. It’s frightening, it’s messy, and I have the deepest resistance to having to consider the likes of Ted Cruz or Priti Patel as part of my community. However, as Stephen Graham said in the brilliant new series The Walk-In (American peops, you MUST watch this as soon as you can), ‘We have to believe people can change.’
And we can’t change in a vacuum.
Of course, I wonder about this in G-d’s economy. Does that mean everyone is redeemable? Greg Abbott? Donald Trump? Vladimir Putin?
Satan? Is Lucifer redeemable? I keep hearing Fr Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) in the television series The Exorcist:
Son of the morning, banished from grace, you are forgiven. Profane thing, ashes on the earth, you are redeemed. Outcast, fallen angel, you are loved. You are forgiven. You are redeemed. You are loved.
I’ve had several dreams of meeting Lucifer in beast form, grabbing his front hooves and saying, ‘I love you,’ over and over again. As I did, his forelegs became human just past the wrist, but I could do no more. Perhaps, as a whole community, we can bring even him home.
Forgiven. Redeemed. Sought. Found.
How do we do this? What gets us past the resistance to having those we find hateful, bigoted, difficult in community with us? What gets us through the conflict, wrestling with shadow, and the whole entire mess? There aren’t any neat answers, but I think, at the core, it’s about holding everyone’s lives as precious as we hold our own and the lives of those we love fiercely. So, when the desaparecidos, the missing indigenous women, the refugees, the mentally ill, those trapped in darkness with no hope, the fascist wanting to repent, Lucifer himself ask us, You will search for me? Wherever I am? If there is a way? – our response is always,
Wherever you are. Until the sun dies and the last wind blows through the worlds. Need you ask me?