I’ve needed reconstructive surgery for a long time. It’s nothing terminal, but it’s something visible. After decades of ignoring the need for reconstruction, I finally talked to a surgeon about it, and I think I’ve decided to undergo one aspect of reconstruction while ignoring the rest of it.
I’d like to explain why, not because my decision is all that relevant to anyone else, but because the reasons behind it seemed to be rooted deeply in Judaism, and there’s a contrast with Christianity.
But first, let me reiterate: I’m not dying or anything. (Well, no more than any other living person is.) The problem doesn’t even have specific health risks with it; I asked the surgeon what the consequences would be if I did absolutely nothing, and he shrugged; my lifespan is not going to be affected by the reconstruction, whether it happens or not. I don’t need or want any prayers for healing.
My reconstruction has been taking place since the day I was born. I’ve had a lot of surgery (more than thirty operations involving general anesthetics.) Today, the problem would be addressed easily and simply, within days – but when I was born, it was a serious question whether to abort, or abandon such children altogether. In Roman times, I’d have been sacrificed to the gods, or left to die on a hill if I’d made it to term at all.
After a while, I stabilized – my last major surgery would have been maybe when I was eight or nine years old. (Please forgive me – I was young and the dates didn’t matter to me then, and they don’t really matter now – I’m only trying to offer a narrative such that things make sense to others.)
The idea was that I was stable, and when I finished my primary growth – at fifteen or sixteen, maybe a bit earlier – I’d undergo another round of reconstruction and finish everything up, as well as fix a minor problem that was still unresolved.
That minor problem is still present today.
However… at around thirteen or so, I had a conversation with my stepfather about it. I don’t remember what started it, or why. I only remember that he did something that no-one else had ever done, and that in retrospect was incredibly cruel, even though I remain grateful in some really sardonic ways.
He said that I had a choice. I could proceed with reconstruction, and become something different, or I could choose to be who I was.
This was mind-blowing to me.
I grew up isolated from the people around me, always feeling different (and being different.) I was a Jew in a sea of Christians. I was surrounded by kids for whom the worst thing in life was that they’d have to wait until Christmas to get a new color television set, or maybe their motorcycle could use a new set of shocks. Meanwhile, I could look back on my friendships from before I was eight, and count on one hand the number of children who’d even survived to nine years old.
On the playground, kids would count the number of stitches they had – the winner in third grade had something like thirty. I didn’t play, because by then I’d had thousands of stitches. I had no idea how to relate the differences in scale. I understood that it was a big deal to them, but to me… how could I explain, at eight years old, what it was like? How could I become knowable to them?
What’s more, I was always changing. In elementary school, I had multiple surgeries that affected how I was able to interact with people; one, for example, prevented me from speaking for six weeks. How would elementary-aged kids be expected to know a kid with whom no real interaction is possible? Everything I did, I had to do alone. The other kids couldn’t learn to rely on my presence, because I was necessarily not present on occasion.
It’s not their fault, nor is it mine, but the truth is that they saw me as a variable, and not a necessary one like weather or traffic or anything like that.
So there I am at twelve or thirteen, and I’m given this idea of being knowable. Sure, I’d not be fully constructed, but I’d be knowable to myself and, as a new thing, to others. I’d be able to stop eating my mother’s time and energy, and she’d be able to actually focus on her own life and marriage. (I’m convinced that my issues contributed heavily to my parents’ divorce.) I’d be able to start living my own life, instead of waiting for all this surgery and recovery to finish.
Or I could keep enduring the constant struggle, keep consuming my mother’s life, keep trying to learn how to compensate for whatever physical challenges I had remaining, or how to adjust to not having a given challenge any more. (After not being able to speak for six weeks, I had to learn how to speak properly again. And it wasn’t the last time.)
I made the choice to try to become knowable.
One of the crucial differences between Christianity and Judaism comes down to transformation.
Christianity relies on it – every Christian undergoes a redemptive, transformative moment from which they go from condemned to redeemed, lost in sin to saved by grace. “I once was lost, but now am found,” as “Amazing Grace” recounts, in a core narrative that should apply to every Christian.
Judaism, on the other hand, does not. Judaism has very few examples of transformation – the one undergoing the covenant moment is part of the narrative both before and after. Abram covenanted with God, and his name was changed to Abraham – but he was the same monotheist before and after. Moses encountered the burning bush, and was somewhat transformed, but his encounter exposed something in his being that was there all along. Elijah found the still, small voice of God – but was Elijah before and after.
Jacob, becoming Israel, is one of the few examples of a radical transformation preserved in Judaism.
Such transitions are hardly positive in Judaism. One can transition from kosher to tamei (“clean” to “unclean”) fairly easily, but to become clean is a much more difficult prospect. (God, represented by time, is usually the actor of such a transformation, if it’s possible at all.)
Now see Christ, who spent His ministry radically changing all of this. You see it in the Gospels over and over again: Christ encounters a need, and transforms the needy from a state of condemnation and uncleanness to salvation and purity, with authority.
My choice to not undergo reconstruction in my youth was based on my exhaustion of constant change. I was (and still am, at my core) a Jew. I was ready to be a Jew, to be myself, rather than spend more time becoming the Jew I was supposed to be.
I’ve decided to pursue finishing one aspect of my reconstruction, left incomplete long ago, and ignore the rest. I am still myself, and I choose to remain who I am today.