Sunday, December 18, 2011
The great philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786, was one of the most esteemed minds in the Age of Enlightenment in Germany. Referred to as "the Socrates of Berlin," his intellectual brilliance and moral superiority were renowned and he won many prestigious prizes. Unfortunately, he was also notably unattractive as he had a grotesque hunchback.
One day, while visiting a merchant named Gugenheim in Hamburg, he glimpsed the merchant's beautiful, blue eyed blonde daughter, Frumtje, and fell hopelessly in love with her. Her father, eager for a match, had told her of Mendelssohn's reputation, but the first time she saw him she was so repulsed by his misshapen appearance that she burst into tears and hid in her room to await his departure.
Moses gathered his courage and climbed the stairs to speak with her one last time. He had never seen a woman as beautiful as she, but all his attempts to engage her in conversation failed. Finally, he softly asked her, "Is it my hump?" She nodded.
"Let me tell you a story then," he said. "Do you believe marriages are made in heaven?"
"Yes," she answered, still looking at the floor. "Do you?"
"Yes, I do," he replied. “As you know, when a child is born, proclamation is made in heaven of the name of the person he or she is to marry. When I was born, my future wife was also named, but at the same time it was said that she herself would be humpbacked. ‘O God,’ I said, ‘a deformed girl will become embittered and unhappy. A woman should be beautiful and well-made in every way. Please, Lord, give me the hump and let her be fair and perfect.’”
Frumpje was so touched that she looked into his eyes and saw his loving soul shining out at her. She gave him her hand and soon became his devoted wife. They enjoyed a blissful marriage and had six children, all of whom were brilliantly successful in their various fields.
This story always makes me cry a little. I find that there is much to cry about these days, both in my personal life and in the world at large. Every day I sit at Flip's bedside and bear witness to his ongoing disintegration as his illness claims him at a shocking rate. I have begun to wonder if perhaps I was the one who was supposed to be so afflicted, but that Flip begged to take on the disease himself to spare me, and because he knew that I could not endure it with as much grace as he does.
The Buddhist practice of Tonglen, assuming another's pain, is also very much in my mind. Its purpose is to awaken our compassion by connecting with suffering, our own and that of others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we create around ourselves by reversing the usual avoidance of suffering while seeking pleasure. If we can accomplish this, we become liberated from the self-imposed prison of selfishness. We perceive a larger view of reality and learn to use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
I am trying to teach myself to take on Flip's suffering, to somehow ease it for him, but this is way beyond any capabilities I presently possess. But did Flip, like Moses Mendelssohn, take on the terrible infirmity intended for me, and is he even now breathing in my pain, doing Tonglen for me? I cannot know the answer but I do know that if he could, he would. And perhaps he did.