Rabbi's book shares lessons gleaned from pain
"I tell people if you have to walk through hell — we all do sometimes — don't come out empty-handed." — Rabbi Steve Leder, author of "More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us"
For years, Rabbi Steve Leder had counseled and consoled individuals in pain.
Then the spiritual leader found himself in severe pain when he suffered a spinal injury in a car crash.
The spiritual insight he gleaned in the aftermath of the accident led Leder to write "More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us."
The author and senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest synagogue in Southern California, will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City. His presentation is being sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City.
In a recent telephone interview, Leder talked about the premise of "More Beautiful Than Before" and other insights. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What made you decide to write "More Beautiful Than Before?" Was there any one thing that led you to write the book or a series of things?
A: This book in a way is my attempt to set the record straight on pain, and I'll explain what I mean by that. Before I wrote this book, I was a rabbi for 27 years. I have a very large congregation of about 10,000 people, and obviously, I had experienced people who had tremendously different and difficult painful situations and thought I was doing a pretty good job of it. And then about five years ago, I was in a very frightening car accident, and it resulted in spinal surgery and a lot of pain, opioids, steroids, more opioids, depression — it really, really rocked me physically and emotionally. I realized in the midst of that experience and afterwards, that despite my best efforts over the previous 27 years in helping people through pain, I actually knew little to nothing about pain. This experience was extremely enlightening and instructive for me so I wrote this book to kind of juxtapose the mythology of pain and the reality of pain and to really help people who are in the darkness. And not only that, to help people who want to help people who are in pain because pain can immobilize not only the victim but everyone around that person. I didn't create a genre here; there are other books about pain in the world. But the other part of this that I think is important is what do we do when we are the cause of pain, when you are the betrayer? What do you do when you're the reason another person is suffering, then what? That kind of guilt and shame is its own universe, its own pain, and there's not much out there about how do we really make things right? But really it was that car accident and every thing that followed that inspired me to write the book. That was the moment that I had to set things straight for people.
Q: Often, people don't think of suffering, loss and pain as experiences that results in anything positive. Have people seemed surprised at your premise?
A: Well, in no way do I intend for this book to be an idealization of pain. In no way do I intend to imply that it is something other than pain. The way I like to put this is the lessons that we learn from pain. I'm not pretending that they're worth it — they're not worth the pain. What I'm saying is neither are they worthless. I tell people if you have to walk through hell — we all do sometimes — don't come out empty-handed. We don't get to choose the pain, but there is always something to learn from it. I wish that accident had never happened, but I'm also grateful for the ways it changed me.
Q: In your chapter entitled "The Prisoner Cannot Free Himself," you write: "Pain, emotional or physical, reveals our vulnerabilities. It presses where it hurts. We can grimace and ignore that pain. We can blunt it with pills, booze, sex, shopping, eating, vaping, or weed ... but no one in pain, despite what they might say at the time, does better enduring their pain alone." What do you mean by this statement and is this a central theme of the book — the idea that people need to talk about their pain with others?
A: It is a central theme. There is a phrase in the book that says, "The prisoner cannot free himself" — that no one suffers pain better alone. And one of the things that pain ideally teaches us is the degree of humility that enables us to reach out and say, "I need help. I'm afraid. I hurt." That's a very important powerful step to reach out. So on the one hand, there's a lot of material in the book about encouraging the suffering to reach out. The other part, of course, is what does one do when one is reached out to? How do you take the hand of someone who is suffering and lift him or her from his or her suffering? So there's a lot in the book about how to help because most people get it wrong. Or they don't try at all because they don't know what to do.
Q: What are some of the things people should do to help someone in pain?
A: Never say these seven words. Never say, "Let me know if you need anything." Never say that. First of all, most people who say it, don't mean it, and it's kind of kabuki empathy — fake. And even if we do mean it when we say it, we're nevertheless giving homework to someone who's already suffering and carrying a terrible burden. And now we've added to that burden by requiring them to tell us what they need. Instead, the thing to do is just anticipate if you were in that position, what would be helpful to you and go do it. Don't wait to be asked or wait to be told, just do it. Now, on the positive side, what' the most important thing to say?: "I'm here." Just show up.
'How Suffering Transforms Us with Steve Leder'
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; Registration begins at 6:30 p.m. Book signing/wine reception afterwards.
Where: Howard Theater at Heritage Hall, 1800 NW 122.
Cost: general admission, $35; $75, priority seating; $250, two tickets, book and premier seating.
Information: 848-3132, ext. 574; https://www.jfedokc.org.