“The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there.”
—Cheryl Strayed, from Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Cheryl Strayed is not Jewish and she claims to be an atheist. But for all that she can sound very rabbinic. In her advice column for The Rumpus, under the pseudonym Sugar, she is worldly and wise, foul-mouthed and soul searching, fierce with passion and unstinting in the depths of her compassion. She gives many readers a kind of spiritual care.
She can do this because she has herself traversed deep turmoil—abuse as a child, abandonment by her father, the loss of her mother as a young adult—and can speak openly about her own experiences in a very raw way that also illuminates a path to healing. What she writes is like no advice column you’ve ever read before, because what she offers is never a set of do’s and don’ts from on high, but personal essays that are as unsparing about her own mistakes as they about those of the people who write her. I think she inspires trust because she is generous in what she divulges.
The advice column, like the therapist’s chair, is in many ways a secularized version of what would once have been seeking guidance—or absolution—from clergy. One of the most powerful letters in her collection is one she wrote to a father who had lost his only son at the age of 22 in a car accident, who years after the event was still incapicitated by his grief. In this response, she writes about “the obliterated place”—the place within, scorched and seared, where you carry your deepest sorrow.
She explains that the word obliterate comes from Latin: “Ob means ‘against’; literare means ‘letter’ or ‘script.’ A literal translation is ‘being against the letters.’” What an amazing concept to consider, at a time in the Jewish calendar that we talk so much about being written, inscribed, sealed—about how we conceive of our fate, what time we have on this earth, and what we can do to change how we experience it—this idea of ‘being against the letters’, opposing with all our force the thing that has been doled out to us as our lot. We can submit to that force and remain devastated, or we can pass through it and find growth. “It is impossible for you to go on as you were before,” Strayed writes to the father, “so you must go on as you never have.”
She continues: “When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.”
Another term for “being compelled to reach” is “post-traumatic growth,” which was the theme of Rabbi Sharon Brous’s sermon at IKAR in Los Angeles, where I spent Yom Kippur. Most people are familiar with post-traumatic stress, but there is a companion notion that after life-altering or terrifying experiences more people will be resiliant and not only regain equilibrium, but will grow and find deeper meaning and purpose in the aftermath. Rabbi Brous encouraged everyone to face the fact of death, to really sense that existential terror, in order to see the next moment, the next hour, the next day, as a reprieve and a gift. In order to grow.
When people ask me how I am doing, my response of late has been “I’ll be much better once I have eyebrows again”—that’s the post-traumatic growth I’m looking for! And groping one’s way out of a dark place can seem unbearably slow—as slow as watching hair grow. But bit by bit it’s happening, even when you’re not aware. Time erodes the sharp edges. In time, one can only hope, a temple will be standing, giving shade and shelter, weeds sprouting around the cornerstones, in spot of bare earth that once was the obliterated place.