Lately, my preschool son has been teaching me how to live wisely in these harrowing times, in which so much of our collective life hangs in the balance.
It started with a bedtime banana.
Each evening, we cuddle together in the arms of a giant stuffed teddy bear while I read to him. Our soft light glows on each page. His body is deliciously heavy against mine. He munches his bedtime banana snack. We are safe and whole amidst the tumult and wreckage of the nation and the world.
The other night, when he peeled the banana, it broke in half.
He doesn’t like it when his banana breaks.
He took a moment to register what had happened, then wailed: “I WANT A DIFFERENT BANANA!”
Life is hard enough for a tired young child without their comfort food spontaneously self-destructing. I would have been happy to get him another banana and eat the broken one myself. The trouble was…
“We’re all out of bananas, my love,” I said quietly. “This is the only one we have.”
“I. Want. A. Different. BANANA!” he screamed. He still thinks I am omnipotent, able to summon a banana where there is none. He thinks he just needs to convince me to try harder. “PLEASE, Mama, PLEASE!”
As he sobbed in my lap, his rage eventually morphed into sorrow. His body softened. His tears in moments like these are not whiny. They are not grabby. They are tears of existential longing. He wanted a different banana, and we had none.
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Holding him, I realized I knew just how he felt.
After a recent slew of terrifying mass shootings, I had screamed and hit the couch after putting my son to bed. I had cried out in anguish to God. I wanted to go back in time. I wanted God to fix it all. I wanted a different world.
The trouble was…
“We’re all out of worlds, my love,” God said quietly. “This is the only one we have.”
I hate this. And like my son, in the heat of fury I do not buy it one bit. I secretly believe another world is hiding in the kitchen, and that God is holding out on me. If I wail loud enough, or pledge to be the perfect activist, I am sure God will get up and find that world – the one where democracy is flourishing, children are safe in school, and Exxon never sowed murderous doubt on climate science. A different world has to be there, buried under the half-finished boxes of crackers, or peeking out from under the potatoes.
As I rocked my crying child, I thought about how Western culture wants us to repress, sugarcoat, or rush grief and how Jewish tradition teaches differently. Our liturgy gives voice to a heartbroken longing for justice and redemption. Our holiday cycle gifts us with Tisha B’Av, a day of communal mourning for the brokenness of the world. Our death and mourning rituals carve out time and space for loved ones to fully feel their sorrow. Even in the midst of the greatest Jewish joy – a wedding – we break a glass to honor sadness. Our ancestors knew we needed to express our broken hearts if we were to have any chance of finding joy. They knew grieving is a form of prayer and even service. Yet, as modern adults, it is so hard to honor our emotional pain with healthy expression.
What astounds me about my son’s heartbreak is that he always finds his way through if we do not interrupt him. It may take a while, but his cry will quiet. He will draw a big breath. If you pay attention, you can perceive a miniscule shake of his body, the final residue of upset falling away. You can practically see the neural pathways being laid down, such shining cobblestone streets of emotional intelligence: My feelings move through me. I survive my heartbreak. I do not teach him these truths – he lives into them. All I do is teach him he is not alone.
The night of the broken banana, it took him a full hour to work through the feelings. Exhausted but finally calm, he had ultimately announced, “Oh! What I really wanted was a bagel.”
Sometimes redemption looks like rearranging your inner furniture so that what you have is what you wanted all along.
A few weeks after the broken banana, I found myself beating the couch in rage again when, as a woman who has had an abortion, as a climate activist, and as a mother afraid of gun violence, the Supreme Court took protections that were imminently precious to my soul and broke them to pieces, tossing us all further from democracy and closer to climate and humanitarian catastrophes.
But I remembered my son’s process and allowed my rage to morph into sorrow.
Soon I felt a familiar and numinous presence holding me, as sure as arms around a crying child. I can’t sense this presence when I’m angry, but I can when I’m sad, because in my sorrow I soften and can feel what is outside the hard shell of my fury. And it turns out that just outside is a presence holding me, just like I hold my son. Call it God. Call it Love. Call it a giant cosmic teddy bear. I just know I was not alone.
Heartbreak looks so scary from the outside every single time, like dark and treacherous waters. Every time all I want to do is run away. But when I finally let myself slip under its waves, I discover that the waters are healing, and I am buoyant. I remember I need to swim here every once in a while, accompanied by a luminous mothering presence, or I become stiff and useless back on shore.
When I dried my eyes, the Supreme Court rulings still stood and there was plenty of work to be done. Letting myself grieve doesn’t directly change the world, but it changes me. It cleans me out so I can show up for what comes next. It gives me strength.
Unlike my preschooler, I can choose when and where to have my meltdowns. But if I am tempted to bottle up my feelings for too long, my son reminds me not to. As sure as I teach him, he teaches me: My feelings move through me. I survive my heartbreak. Small children dive into anger and grief multiple times a day. If we let them – and we must – they release it all and emerge ready to play again.
This is the Torah of the Broken Banana: Our hearts are sure to break, but each time we allow ourselves to fully grieve, we learn their brokenness will not break us. Each time we move the feelings through our bodies, we free up mental and emotional space to keep fighting for a better world – and to simply keep living with sweetness and joy.
The next morning, I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of old bananas. My son and I mashed them up, and soon the smell of banana bread filled the kitchen.
Shoshana Meira Friedman is a rabbi, mother, writer, and climate activist in Boston.
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