Learning from misery

Jay Michaelson takes readers on an intensely personal and emotional journey exploring sadness.

‘SADNESS IS not an obstacle on the path; it is the path itself.’ (photo credit: SILVIA SALA/FLICKR)
‘SADNESS IS not an obstacle on the path; it is the path itself.’
(photo credit: SILVIA SALA/FLICKR)
Rabbi Dr. Jay Michaelson, a Jewish scholar, activist and cultural commentator, has undergone many changes and transitions throughout his life.
When I first met him, he was just a guy in Jerusalem whom my friend Josh asked me take with me to Shabbat dinner. At the time he held a Yale law degree, but was seeking out his next steps. His next years saw him taking the leap into the fields of journalism, scholarship and spirituality; coming out as gay, distancing himself from Orthodox Judaism and collecting a couple more degrees.
This intense journey is clearly visible in the range and depth of Michaelson’s book topics and genres: God and non-duality; mindfulness and meditation; religion and homosexuality; poetry. His latest offering, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, the fruit of 10 years of work, is, unsurprisingly, intensely reflective and personal.
But do we really need a book on sadness? Isn’t it one thing we can still do ourselves, and quite well? Well, it’s not that simple. While babies are experts at bawling, readers of this review haven’t been babies for quite some time; years of social conditioning and shame have separated many adults from the simple act of being unabashedly, cathartically sad. Michaelson volunteers to guide us back to our true nature, drawing on intellectual and spiritual resources along with materials from his own self and life.
The Gate of Tears takes its place on the 21st-century bookshelf – but not in the self-help section, insists the author, for it “is not a cure for sadness. It is more self-helpless than self-help.”
Nevertheless, it contains suggestions aplenty for how to manage, or rather encounter, sadness. These arrive embedded in a series of somewhat rambling, standalone short chapters, each a kind of prose poem, a gem of introspection shaded in autumn hues in which the author shares what he’s learned from Zen Buddhism, Leonard Cohen, Rebbe Nahman, Sherri Mandell, the Burning Man festival and more.
The central message can be summed up in the sentence: “Sadness is not an obstacle on the path; it is the path itself.” It should not be avoided; it’s a tremendous teacher. Yet the true value and nature of sadness is largely misunderstood by Michaelson’s own society, to his chagrin.
“America is about the pursuit of happiness, after all – so start pursuing,” he writes pointedly. Sadness is “often stigmatized, shamed, deemed a kind of American failure... a secularized sin.”
Though the author’s mother died during the book’s writing, its primary focus is not so much the grand, tragic emotions of bereavement but “ordinary sadness.” This is not to be confused with depression. A true experience of sadness should lead to more aliveness, not less. It can provide a powerful key to liberation, spirituality and even mysticism. Religion, though, can obstruct sadness in its promise of a life or afterlife of everlasting joy; hence, the last third of the book is dedicated to a mode of religion that speaks to Michaelson – what he terms “the religion of tears,” the experience of crying to a personal God he is not even sure he believes in. For him, sadness “resonates in the liturgy of my Jewish tradition, in the poetry of its psalms and in the biographies of its flawed and redemptive heroes.”
In The Gate of Tears, we find Buddhism and Judaism rubbing shoulders in ways at times divergent and at others complementary.
In one chapter, we witness the author, having just said kaddish in an Orthodox minyan for his (fiercely egalitarian) mother, doing a metta blessing meditation on his fellow commuters on the train home.
They say misery loves company, and this book can provide company for your misery. Whether in the midst of acute grief or just at a low ebb, comfort and insight are available in its pages, presented in a voice serious yet sardonic, wise and vulnerable without being sappy. Sitting with this book, you might well discover the courage to converse with your sorrow, and to smoke a pipe with your angst.
Whether you want to carp a little or cry a lot, he’s game, proposing with a diffident smile: “We’re in this together. Can I share some thoughts?” Either traverse the book from cover to cover, or save it for a time when you need to hear your soul’s more muted tones – or for one of those terrible-horrible-no-good days when the corners of your mouth just won’t turn up. Dip into it as a prelude to prayer, meditation or journaling, or read a paragraph last thing at night. But keep in mind that reading about sadness isn’t always the best thing to do when low. The New Age and positive psychology movements’ advice to go focus on something else succeeds in many cases.
Readers unfamiliar with non-dual theology and basic Buddhist ideas might find themselves lost at moments; and those ignorant of the author’s background will also have little to work with, as his biography plays hide-and-seek inside the pages.
Moreover, though I greatly appreciated the occasional revelations of the author’s imperfections and failures – not so easy to confess in print – this particular aspect might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The Gate of Tears not only serves to assuage the loneliness of dark hours, it gently encourages us to drop into our pain and “set awhile” in that daunting place, knowing we are neither weird nor dysfunctional but simply human. This is not always an easy read, but it’s a valuable one. It might even save your life.
Yael Unterman is the author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar and The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing.