My parents, apparently, never warned me against talking to strangers, so I tend to talk to everyone: taxi drivers, check-out clerks, maintenance workers, trash collectors – some of my best conversations have been with people whom the rest of the world ignores. So let me tell you about Dumas, a security guard at a hospital I visited last year, part of a daily radiation regimen I had to undergo for a month or so. As security officers go, Dumas is hardly menacing, but he is a big man, strategically perched at the hospital’s entrance: the last gatekeeper, before you enter the lobby. Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, no one pays him any attention, but I did, and over time, I got to know him.
Dumas speaks a sort of Creole French, so the minute he heard I was from Canada, he began peppering our conversation with French words, most of which I either didn’t remember or didn’t understand, but no matter: Dumas saw me as his sort-of-French speaking friend. On my last appointment day, I said au revoir to my new-found ami, and gave him a box of chocolates to thank him for his sweetness.
What linked us together beyond the French was the mutual realization that both of us are religious.
“Welcome, my brother,” Dumas would say, “The Lord has given us a pleasant day.”
“Amen to that,” I’d respond.
“God bless you,” he said, as he opened the chocolates.
“God bless you too, Dumas,” I answered. “You yourself are a blessing, you know. I am grateful to have met you.”
I hated each hospital appointment; I loved what I shared with Dumas.
I came to see myself as inhabiting two worlds simultaneously. The first was the world of healthcare: the hospital visits themselves, the blood draws, lab tests, wrist IDs, and treatments – the kind of thing that raises anxiety even if there is nothing to be anxious about. The second was a religious reality, where God gives us lovely days and blesses us as we pass through them. “Be blessed in your comings and your goings,” as Deuteronomy says (28:6). Dumas guarded the hospital of the sick; he welcomed God’s creatures who came to visit.
We actually inhabit many worlds: work, school, healthcare, and so on. They appear to us as simple givens, the brute facts of life, but actually, they are socially constructed, embedded in institutions with rules of dress, conduct, status, and behavior. Think of them as a set of circles, with pathways leading from one to the other. On any given day, we commute from circle to circle, world to world.
Each world comes with its own appropriate vocabulary and conversations. In the world of business, for example, I might file a written claim with my insurance company, and sign it, “Sincerely” – not, however, because I am particularly sincere about what I have just said, but as a sign that my letter is a business sort of thing. If I write about the incident to an old friend, however, I sign it, “Warmly,” or “Fondly,” although probably not “Love” – -a sign that we are part of the world of personal relationships, but not quite as intimate as the world of family. If you’ve ever paused before signing off with “Warmly, “Fondly,” Love,” or “xxoo,” you know how much the specialized rules of language matter.
Rule confusion can sometimes court disaster, as in this tale I heard when I worked one year for the US Navy. A traveler falls overboard into the raging sea. The captain stops the ship, but unable to locate the victim, shouts into a megaphone, “We will save you! Tell us your position, what is your position?” “I’m president of a bank!” comes the reply, “President of a bank!”
A more usual problem with vocabularies is our reluctance to use them if we are hesitant to buy into the worlds they represent. That’s the problem with the religious vocabulary that Dumas and I shared together, but which most people avoid because they think they are not religious. They are not sure they believe in God; less sure that God blesses us; so they feel foolish saying “God bless you” (except for sneezes, where they say it without meaning it). But sometimes the vocabulary has to come first, as a sort of password into the reality that it conjures up. It is not entirely the case that when I greet Dumas with “God bless you,” I am already convinced of a God who blesses. Rather, I entertain the possibility of divine blessing because I let myself say “God bless you.”
It’s not altogether different from the first time you told someone, “I love you.” Just saying those words initiates you into a world of romantic love that you may have thought you’d never find. Remember Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. “Do you love me?” he asks Golde – who, forced now to consider the question, decides that maybe she does. The point is, marriage throughout most of history had nothing to do with our idea of love. Love too is a social construction, albeit more universally accepted than religion.
Religious language need not be taken literally: it is suggestive more than it is descriptive. I say, “God willing, I’ll meet you for lunch,” even though I don’t literally believe that my meeting depends on God’s will (whatever God is, God surely doesn’t care where or with whom I eat). Similarly, upon hearing that you are safely out of surgery, I say, “Thank God,” even though I don’t believe God micromanaged the surgeon’s hands. Language is sometimes just indicative of the larger world it represents. I use God language to raise the ante – “Thank God” expresses the ultimacy of the moment: it’s better than, “Great. You had a good surgeon.”
That’s why I say blessings: those one-liners that Judaism prescribes for eating various kinds of food, for seeing a rainbow or a beautiful flower or a lightning storm. Take what we call shehecheyanu, for example, “Blessed is God who granted us life, sustained us and brought us to this day.” I use it at holidays, when I eat the first summer produce from my garden, and at family reunions, because I want to elevate the moment to the level of sacred appreciation, and using religious vocabulary gets me there.
Religion is a world unto itself, but a world that we can enter just by speaking it into being. It is a world where the beautiful is also divine; where even in our loneliness, God is somehow with us, so we need not fear; where death is not the end, because in some divine calculus, our dead are “bound up in the bond of life eternal”; where life itself is not just accidental but riddled with purpose; and where hope never fails because my language invokes images of a better world than this in the long run.
Were it not for Dumas, I would have entered and left the hospital as just a patient. Were it not for me, Dumas would have come to work and gone back home as merely a security guard. Together, however, colluding, as we did, to speak of God and of blessing, we discovered that we were “brothers,” “blessed,” and somehow watched over by some higher reality than either of us can understand.
This is so beautiful and so true, inasmuch anything can be totally true. But let’s say that it is true for me in my recollection of the extraordinary nurses and doctors that took care of me and saved my life back in 2008. To this day, I remember them as angels that would use all the power of medicine to heal, the working hands of a much mightier force with which I worked to live. Their כַּוָּנָה was sacred, while their work was human.