The One You Feed

Sharon Salzberg tells a story about a boy who hears about two warring wolves. One is good and one is evil. He asks his father: Which one will win? The answer is “The one you feed.”

What we give our attention to can be the making of us, or the making of our destruction. Reading Sharon’s description of the parable of the two wolves, I wondered which wolf I was feeding.

As the child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up focusing on the destructive wolf. That wolf had decimated six millions Jews, among them most members of my family. In the New York in which I grew up, the entire neighborhood seemed composed of immigrants, refugees, their arms often tattooed with dehumanizing numbers, like the brands on cattle. These tattooes meant they’d been at a death camp like Auschwitz, marked for nothing but death and burning. For ashes. My parents, for better or worse, let me hear about these events from the time I was very young.

In their minds, I think they were trying to give me a mission. To remember, to be loyal to the remnants of our people, to be vigilant about the presence of evil in the world. And yet — in some way, my focus on “us” and “them,” on war and hatred in the presence of a peaceful, loving childhood, was a form of distraction, to put it mildly. There’s a famous movie, “Life is Beautiful,” in which a father tells his son that the Nazi regime and its cruelties are all part of a game, just an amusement for his pleasure. In that way, he reinterprets and defuses the evil. In my life, however, truly fun moments, actual games, or even neutral ones, tended to be interpreted as comments on the Holocaust. My father might add m&ms to my oatmeal so I’d eat it, sending the food toward my mouth like an airplane. But just as typically, my mother might pass by, look at my spoonful of mush, and state, “that little bit of food? It could have saved a life back then.” I remember when earth tones were in – oranges, browns and goldenrod yellows. I wore a chocolate brown shirt one day, and what did my father think of? Nazi brownshirts, not the bounty of Gaia or the savor of a nice piece of Lindt.

So here was my problem, then – to think about things, to remember, to be vigilant – and at the same time not miss the moment in which I was living. In writing my memoir, THE WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER, I describe this very struggle. I think childhood won actually – and I managed to fill my own with moments of wonder. But along with that, there was deep sorrow, a sorrow that is woven into my mind and hard to unravel. Writing the memoir started that process, making me mindful of all the elements of my life that have led to my reconciliation of opposing forces, my acceptance of love as the governing principle of the world. The inexpressible luxury of meditating on God-inspired breath or the miraculous body continues my growth to this day. It feeds me like a spoonful of oatmeal full of m&ms, and is as sweet.