Twenty-five years ago my best friend was raped at knifepoint. She lived alone in Hollywood and like most 20-somethings, had never really given her safety a second thought. Until that night when she awoke from out of a dead sleep to find a man with his hand over her mouth and a knife to her throat.
I didn’t know anything about this when we first met. And when we first met, I fell in love with her, immediately. Who wouldn’t? After all, most of you know Didi and love the same qualities about her that I do.
Gregarious, outgoing, always making people laugh, caring deeply about others – it takes an hour just to cross the street with her in the Palisades, because she has to stop and talk to every single person she meets.
There are some people you meet in life who just make the world brighter and happier because they are in it. Didi is that kind of person. Watching her live her life each day with such exuberance and joy, no one would ever imagine the terrifying personal trauma she endured. I have often wondered how it was that she didn’t let that terror snuff out the sparkle that shines so obviously within her.
This past week, as fear stalked the land, quietly insinuating its destructive tentacles around the hearts of our nation, I looked at Didi and her ability to conquer that personal terror in a new light.
Before the rape like so many of us in our youth, she felt invulnerable. She traveled all over the Far East as a young woman in her twenties, alone, to back-water military outposts in countries where she didn’t speak the language and didn’t know a soul – surrounded by strange men in foreign countries, so she could sing to soldiers. And she didn’t give it a second thought.
When she moved to Los Angeles to continue her career as an entertainer, she lived in a bungalow in Hollywood and never even bothered to close the windows at night.
And then she was raped, and everything changed. Hours later, when the rapist left, fear was left behind in his place. From that moment on she has never been the same. When I met her six years later, she lived in a studio apartment because she could stand by the door every time she entered and see the entire apartment at a glance – nowhere for another rapist to hide.
And when she wasn’t in an apartment that small she couldn’t spend the night alone. In fact long after we were married, anytime I traveled out of town for a speaking engagement, she would have to have a girl friend come to spend the night with her. The trauma, the fear, the feeling of total vulnerability ran deep. It does to this day.
And now it seems we have all caught up to Didi. Fear does stalk the land. And everyone tells me the same thing – how frightened they feel. How insecure they feel. How vulnerable they feel.
In fact as I spoke with people over the past ten days, “fear” and how to live with it, seemed to be the number one subject.
One woman told me, “I feel like it’s the end of the world, and I’m sitting looking at my children in terror, afraid to go out, afraid of what might happen to me or to them. I just want to be in my house with my family.”
So how do we learn to conquer this gnawing fear that lies like a dark cloud over our nation? We do it by recognizing that practically every one of us has already lived through our own personal fears and terrors in a hundred different ways.
Some of you, like Didi have been physically attacked. Others spent their entire childhood cowering from bullies on the playground. Others live today in abusive, controlling relationships that rob you of your sense of self-worth and control over your own fate. Still others feel the terror of losing a job, being one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Others live beneath the terror of loneliness – the death of loved ones, the grief of profound loss that is so debilitating you can barely get out of bed in the morning.
Every one of us has been forced already in our lives, sometimes over and over again, to cope with fear, to transcend the personal terrors that have threatened to paralyze us and choke all sense of purpose and meaning from our lives.
And so we can learn from each other – and follow in the footsteps of those who have blazed a trail through their fears before us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Fear defeats more people than any one other thing in the world.” But it was the remarkable Eleanor Roosevelt who gave us perhaps the most important key to conquering fear:
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” she said. “You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Even if that “thing,” is simply get up in the morning, get dressed and greet a new day. What we ultimately learn in every case, is the power of attitude to either bring defeat or inspiration into our lives, regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The daughter of two of our closest friends lives in Canada. We have been excited for months because Didi and I were scheduled to fly up to Victoria just a few weeks ago so I could officiate at her wedding. Instead, beautiful, sweet Erika, just 30 years old saw her wedding plans crushed by a rare malignant olfactory tumor that has already wiped out her ability to smell and taste, and still threatens to take her eyesight as well.
She and Sandy her fiancé and her parents have been living in terror every single day since her condition was first diagnosed months ago. So how have they coped with this daily fear, a fear that grew more and more terrifying each day, as her body reacted to the intense chemotherapy and twice-daily radiation she was forced to undergo?
They defeated their fears with the simple values that matter most in life – with faith, with love, with action. And when her parents realized that neither of them had been raised with any regular spiritual ritual in their home, they created one to serve as a foundation of faith that life can still matter, that life can still be filled with meaning, even knowing that what tomorrow will bring for Erika lies in the shadows of the unknown.
They decided that the one thing they did have control over, was who they were, and how they acted today, every day, one day at a time.
So now every night before they go to sleep they all gather in the bedroom together. They hold hands in a circle, and go around the room reciting the blessings they discovered in their lives that day.
“Do you know,” Erika told me, “every single day we find one miracle after another!” Erika’s family reminded me that it is possible to experience gratitude in the face of fear, miracles in the face of loss. That we can discover in the midst of life’s deepest trials, the simple truths that remind us of who we are today. Today, every day, one day at a time.
And I have a friend named Felice, who comes here to our services whenever she is in Los Angeles, but who lives in New York. Felice has been volunteering downtown near “Ground Hero” as Governor Davis called it. And as we spoke this week about the profound transformation of New York and America since Sept. 11, we found ourselves agreeing that America will never be the same – it will be better. It will be safer. It will be more like a national village than it has ever been in our lifetime.
“I am noticing a new and profound spirit in New York City, one of selfless giving, of tremendous concern for others, of unconditional love and positive regard for one’s fellow human beings.” She wrote just yesterday. “An essence of humans coming together during a crisis, putting their egos aside in order to accomplish a common purpose – saving and preserving lives. I am talking about lives of strangers, people we have never met, probably never will meet. People who have never touched our lives before, but are impacting them today, like they have never been impacted before.”
“People are here from all over,” she wrote. “Pulling together, helping, giving, showing only concern. These citizens are not just enjoying the fruits of democracy and freedom – they are actually doing something to preserve it.
“Outside is a firefighter who drove up on his own volition from Texas, asking to be put to work right away. Wandering about is a woman fresh from Virginia, here for the sole purpose of helping out.
“A young man from Wisconsin, handing out food and supplies near one of the triage centers downtown. And so on. People are not fleeing from the Big Apple in this time of danger – they are flocking to it, to be of service.
“I have a new found hope in humanity. I see now that for every terrorist that exists, there are a million angels here on earth.” There you have it! FOR EVERY TERRORIST THAT EXISTS, THERE ARE A MILLION ANGELS HERE ON EARTH.
That perhaps is the secret to conquering fear. Knowing that for every terrorist, for every individual bent on evil, there are a million angels who will inevitably rise to overcome it. All we have to do is look around and there they are.
What was meant to crush our spirits and drive us apart has bought us together in a thousand ways, all across the nation.
A friend wrote asking how long I think it will be until we return to normal, and what will “normal” even look like?
In a way that’s like asking what an unborn child will look like. Something like his or her relatives I suppose, but a new and precious entity all its own. It may have it’s daddy’s eyes or its mommy’s nose, but ultimately it will be completely unique and full of hope and promise.
And that is how we will be, how our new society will be, how our New World will be. For “normal,” will never be “normal” again. Instead we must be committed to fashioning a safer world, and we already are. We must be committed to fashioning a more cooperative world, and we already are.
We must be committed to creating a world in which those thousands who perished on September 11th will not have died in vain, and we will. Their deaths will literally be the ashes out of which the phoenix of our New World will rise. For it is up to us to make their deaths mean something by remembering them and choosing life at every opportunity.
So I asked Didi to tell me how she did it. How did she go on after the rape without bitterness, without retreating into a shell, without becoming so afraid of the world that she ceased to function? How did she continue to be so outgoing, so giving, and so loving to everyone?
And she told me there were four keys to overcoming her fears:
First, she talked about it to anyone and everyone who would listen. She shared her fears, she shared her experiences, she shared her suffering, she shared her grief and loss of innocence, and in the sharing with other caring human beings she found solace, comfort, connection and strength.
So we must share our pain, our loss, our grief and our fears openly with one another, for in the sharing are the building blocks of community and shared purpose. She gave herself permission to be comforted, to be vulnerable with others, and in doing so she was comforted and grew stronger in the broken places. And we must do the same.
Second, she refused to stereotype and categorize every person with the same racial profile as her rapist, as a rapist, or evil, or an enemy. She insisted that she look upon every human being as a unique individual endowed with divinity and the possibility of goodness, and so must we.
As individuals and as a Jewish community we have to be in the forefront of reaching out to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and all Americans from the Middle East, or Pakistan or Afghanistan, or Iran who now live in greater anxiety then ever before for their own safety here in our own community.
We must remember that it is our Torah, which teaches that “You must treat the stranger that is in your midst as the home born.”
Third, she made sure that she surrounded herself with people and wasn’t alone. She found old friends and family, made new friends and got even more involved with the lives of others than ever before.
Every time she gave of herself to help others, to be with others, to become a part of their lives, she felt richer, stronger, more valuable as a person, and her life took on more meaning and purpose than before.
We must do the same. Get involved with each other. Call family, write friends, volunteer for a Tikun Olam task force, or a local charitable non-profit organization, or the synagogue, or community center right here in our own community. We stand up to our fears by not giving in to them, by not retreating from life but rather embracing life even more fully than before. And as we do, our lives become richer, our lives become more meaningful, and we know to our core that who we are really matters.
And fourth, she knew she couldn’t be passive, that the most important thing was to act. She knew that passivity would allow her fears to grow bigger and more frightening, as the old proverb says, “A small worry casts a giant shadow.” For she knew that every time she made the choice to act, she was retaking emotional control of her life.
So ask yourself, “What can I do?” and do it. Ask yourself, “If this were the end of my life, what would I feel bad not having done?” And do that.
These are the choices. Hide, or seek. Hide from life, or seek a path of our own choosing, of our own creation and build a New World together. And if you know Didi, you know that above all, her advice was this – never lose your ability to laugh at life in spite of it all. And know that most things heal, if you just give them enough time.
So choose to love – rather than hate.
Choose to smile – rather than frown.
Choose to build – rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere – rather than quit.
Choose to praise – rather than put down.
Choose to heal – rather than wound.
Choose to give – rather than grasp.
Choose to forgive – rather than curse.
Choose to pray – rather than despair.
Choose to seek – rather than hide.
Choose to speak – rather than remain silent.
Oh yes, I almost forgot Didi’s 5th suggestion: get yourself the biggest, gooyest hot fudge Sunday you can find – and indulge!