Esther Perel is a therapist who specializes in the vibrancy of sexuality and living a full life. Recently I heard her explain her background and it gave me an insight into what is most important in turbulent times.
Esther grew up, post World War Two, in a ghetto in Belgium inhabited only by Holocaust survivors. Living amongst them, she noticed there were two groups of people.
There were those who were barely alive – Esther called these people those who were simply “surviving”.
Then there were those who were fully alive – she called them “thriving”.
Everyone in her ‘hood had been through the brutalities of the war, had lost unimaginable losses and human dignities.
But it was the ones who were alive who were in touch with what Esther calls their “erotic intelligence” who were the ones she saw as thriving.
Their erotic intelligence allowed them to take in life, with all their senses and in all its fullness.
As I listened to Esther describe these two kinds of people, I had a strong remembering come rushing back at me from my distant past. My mother too had been a World War Two survivor. I had never heard this kind of distinction before between those who were fully alive vs those who were barely alive, although of course Viktor Frankl does touch on this distinction in his own memoir of the war in Man’s Search for Meaning.
But it is Esther’s distinction that made me understand more what my mother was a stand for. I received a deeper appreciation for the legacy she left behind when she died last year.
My mother was someone Esther would have seen as one of the fully alive ones. My mother lost her connection with her family, her village and her ancestors because of the war and was forced to leave her village at a young age. I had always looked at this as the great pain and the great cost of war. It has even given me a focus for the whole of my career as a peacemaker.
Although that is still true, as I listened to Esther’s story recently, my own story got extended – it grew larger.
All of a sudden, I got something new. I got something more deeply & profoundly.
It came rushing at me as a water comes pouring over rocks.
My mother was so full of life, so thankful to be alive. She was daring & didn’t play it safe. She loved people up, she laughed & danced and yes, felt pain deeply.
I can see now that her aliveness was the fruit of suffering. I see now how my own commitment to life grows out of what she taught me! Before I could only see the sorrow and now I see the harvest as well.
Here we are at another war. It presents as a war on germs – but really we are also losing our habitat, other species, each other.
We are in a great decline.
The question that arises for me, in this context, is a juicy one. It’s a question that allows for an embracing of life, and that is:
How will I choose to live and to be – in this context?
This is an important inquiry that can reconstruct our lives. It’s the questions of the ages – How then, shall you live?
No matter the outer circumstance, I choose life. I choose pleasure. I choose desire.
Like Esther herself, I want to be a stand for embracing the erotic in life, whether it shows up in the shadows of the deaths of our past, present or future.
Can embracing erotic intelligence give us more of the taste of joy?
As we hang off the cliff – can we reach for the juicy fruit on the mountain side?