(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of netzach, or endurance and eternity, covers the period April 30-May 8. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)
It’s going to be different this time. I’m sure of it.
And it’s about time, too.
If you’re bored one day, and think seeing the lesser angel of my nature might be entertaining, check me out on an off day when I need to put in a call to customer service at my cable and internet provider. Even before the call is made, I’m bracing for endless prompts and “then press pounds,” until at last I’m finally told to hit zero if my call “is about something else.”
My calls always seem to be about something else.
While waiting for the customer service representative who will draw the short straw and be forced to attend to me, I not infrequently get into a spat with the recorded messages.
“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”
“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that. How about staffing up for your new normal?”
“Your call is very important to us – ”
“Oh, I know. You’d be bereft without me.”
“- and we appreciate your patience.”
“Don’t give me too much credit.”
If the unfortunate rep who gets me sounds too scripted for me tastes when asking how I’m doing today, they’re likely to be met with “I’m fine” in an icily cool tone, the subtext of which is “I’m done, so let’s not bother with pleasantries.” And they’re certainly not asked how they’re doing. Once I’ve explained my issue, when they repeat it back, whoa are they if I have to correct them – especially if they began the call by saying they could certainly fix my problem. My words may be civil, but they come slowly and reluctantly, as if I don’t know how much longer I can suffer this conversation.
No, not me at my best.
Hopefully, somewhere along the way – early in the call, ideally – I catch myself, and make adjustments, remembering the rep is under the watchful ear of a supervisor while dealing with many a crappy customer, and I summon my more pleasant, cooperative self. Too often, though, the call ends with my having made the rep’s life less pleasant than it needs to be. Maybe I regret it soon after the fact; but by then, there’s nothing to be done.
But something is going on these days.
We are now in the fourth week of the counting of the omer, the week of netzach, commonly translated as endurance and eternity. The week of pushing through on the journey from the constriction of slavery to revelation.
Netzach seems an invitation to ask, “How am I enduring these difficult times? And what from these troublesome days might I like to see survive into the better days that will come?”
Among other things, my newly acquired habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator comes to mind. As does the opportunity I’ve taken advantage of to give daily attention to the same group of trees from my balcony, and watch their day-to-day transition.
But what would I like to see endure that benefits more than me?
I am seated on the meditation cushion, doing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice. Typically, the practice begins with extending good wishes to oneself – for instance, silently saying, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” And from there, those wishes are extended concentrically outward, such as to a being from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love, other loved ones, those about whom our feelings our neutral, people we find difficult, and finally, all beings.
When I was first introduced to the practice, I confided resistance to one of my teachers. How would others, I asked, benefit from my silently and stealthily wishing them well? “You may not change them,” he said, “but you’re going to change yourself.”
And he was right. I wasn’t long into the practice before I saw that it helped me more easily and consistently access patience and compassion for myself and others. Even if cable company reps are too frequently given cause for skepticism.
Lately, something has changed when I do metta.
When I get to the juncture where I’m to wish safety, happiness, good health and ease to a person about whom my feelings are neutral, I can’t come up with anyone. Visualizing others I’ve only glancingly encountered, my feelings are anything but neutral. It’s clearer than ever that they’re carrying the same burdens as me, and why it is they should be wished safety and good health. Though I don’t know them, I know enough that I’m feeling too much compassion to have only neutral feelings about them.
Then, when I try to bring someone to mind who I find difficult, I’m similarly challenged. Maybe out on the street and in the ravine, my judgement and ire are triggered by those who are less heedful of physical distancing than they should be, but here on the cushion, it’s a struggle to remember what they look like, and to think of them as difficult. They, like me, are just trying to manage their way through a time none of us are equipped to handle. So most times, I settle for people I’ve found difficult in the past, but towards whom I feel kindness now.
Even before I pick up the phone to call the cable company, I can feel the difference in my body. I start to brace myself for the menu options and pound keys, and discover I lack umbrage. And the small degree of resentment I’ve managed to marshal dissipates entirely when I get a new recording informing me that the long wait times I can expect have to do with prioritizing customers in need of emergency services. While I wait, I think about the economic fallout from these days, and what it means for the job security of the rep with whom I’ll be speaking.
So when I finally get through, and am required to speak to multiple people, and given multiple answers to my one question, I recognize this for the small stuff it is. I still don’t ask the reps how they’re doing, but it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because my instincts tell me they’re too busy to get into it, and also, I fear that their script will require them to answer “fine, thank you,” even though that’s likely not true. But I’m hoping that the cooperative and friendly tone which is coming from me is just as good.
“I see friends shaking hands,” Louis Armstrong once sang for us, “saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, I love you.”
When the call ends, maybe my better angel has shown up and I’ve made the lives of people who are required to serve me a little better than they would have been otherwise.
It’s not that this has never happened before, but it seems to be coming more easily right now.
And so, let conduct of this kind be my way of enduring these times.
And also, let it be something more.
I don’t think my teacher was entirely correct in saying that metta would only change me. Because the greater my capacity to connect with patience and compassion, the better I make the lives of everyone I encounter, and by extension, the lives of all they encounter, and so on, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Let this be the netzach, the eternity, that comes of these times.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say, you and me both, we’ve got this.
Bonus Feature: someone else’s reflections
In anticipation of writing this post, I invited others to convey how netzach – endurance and eternity – has played out for them. And with that, it’s my pleasure to share the following reflections from David Orenstein
My Omer Netzach
Like many of us, daily walks are an expression of Netzach during this shutdown pandemic Omer.
Early in the shutdown, I decided that I would take an early morning walk, in my Riverdale neighbourhood, first thing every day. That is first thing after I feed the cats, bring in the Globe and the Star, maybe check for the Moon, planets and stars, perform my morning ablutions and get dressed. Getting home from the walk I make breakfast for our household.
Back in mid-March, the weather was not always pleasant but I was determined. But in addition to the push of improving my health and maintaining a regular schedule, was soon added the pull of the pleasure of moving my body and the scenic local parks, gardens and architecture.
By now these walks are the best part of my day. As I write, in early May, there are daily changes in the flowers and trees. I’ve worked out quite a variety of interesting return trips. Also I can meet friends and neighbours for short, safely distanced schmooze sessions.
This evokes an earlier period in my life when endurance in walking paid off. Many years before I retired from teaching and was still working, I was feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally drained. Not only was I teaching my classes with a total of up to 180 students, but I had the heavy commitment of being a member of the local union executive for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, along with political commitments and involvement with scholarship, culture and a social life.
So I decided to start my day with a twenty minute walk, on a slight uphill grade, to the Christie subway station. This project also started in challenging March weather. Luckily as my willpower and determination wore off the more clement weather and the burgeoning neighbourhood gardens made this early trek a positive pleasure.
What about you? What enables you to endure this juncture of our path? What would you like to see endure beyond these times? Any thoughts about how to bring it about?