The author discusses his latest book More Beautiful Than Before.
Author and Rabbi Steve Leder
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Everyone of us sooner or later experiences pain, but how do we find meaning in our suffering? Tonight first a conversation with Rabbi Steve Leder. His new book, “More Beautiful than Before” guides us through pain stages and examines the many ways we can transform physical, psychological, or emotional pain into a more authentic and meaningful life.
Then actor-comedian Paul Reiser is here to discuss his new Hulu series, “There’s…Johnny!” and his reoccurring roles on Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and the last season of “Red Oaks”. This dude is busy.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Steve Leder and Paul Reiser in just a moment.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Rabbi Steve Leder back to this program. He is the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, one of America’s largest and most important congregations located in the heart of Los Angeles. His latest text is titled “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us”. He’s a great guy. More important than that, he is my friend of 30 years, I think.
Rabbi Steve Leder: 30 years.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend.
Leder: You as well.
Tavis: I told you months ago when I heard you were doing this, I wanted to have you on to talk about this. Because we’re living in a moment now where so many people are suffering with and from so many things and yet, because suffering tends to happen in dark and desolate places, we can’t see how, when we’re in it, it ultimately transforms us. Tell me the back story for how you came to write this one.
Leder: Well, you can imagine being a Senior Rabbi of a congregation with, you know, 10,000 people in it that you see an awful lot of suffering. You know, it’s my phone that rings when peoples’ bodies or lives fall apart. It’s my phone that rings when they lose the love of their life, a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a child.
So I was witness to a lot of suffering. I’ve been on the inside of many peoples’ lives and I thought I was doing a good job of helping people who were suffering. And then I had a car accident that resulted in excruciating back pain to the degree that at one point I was essentially paralyzed from the waist down. Really, my brain told my body to move, but it wouldn’t move, which is a very frightening feeling.
I spiraled into physical pain, depression, opioids, steroids, and I suffered terribly. And I realized that all those years that I’d been talking to people about suffering, I knew very little about suffering. I learned a great deal from that experience and decided that it was important to help people help others who are suffering.
One of the, I think, important things about the book is that the book does not only address what do we do when we’re the one who’s suffering, but the book also deals with a very important topic which is what do we do when we’re the cause of another person’s suffering? What do you do when you are the betrayer, not the betrayed? Then what? Which is its own sort of terrible, terrible pain.
It took me a long time to learn the lessons that pain had come to teach me. Look, not for a moment am I trying in the book or in my life to glorify suffering or to somehow pretend that this is only apparently difficult or evil or sad. No.
As a friend of mine who had cancer three times and I visited him in the hospital the third time — by the way, three different forms of cancer — when he was dying from the third form of cancer, he looked up at me from his hospital bed and he said, “This much character, I don’t need.”
So I’m not pretending that somehow pain is, you know, a blessing in disguise always or that it’s worth what we can learn from it, but it’s not worthless. And the truth is, success doesn’t change people very much. Pain is the greatest teacher. It’s pain that forces people to make changes in their lives and in their relationships. So it’s a great teacher if we’re good students.
Tavis: So because we’ve been friends for so long, I had a chance to get an early copy of the manuscript when you were working on it. As I started thumbing through it, the part I was most anxious to get to is, I think, the part that others would be most anxious to get to, so I’m glad you said it.
It is this part of the text where you talk about how you navigate the process of moving beyond being the person who causes the pain. Say a word about how one comes to terms with that? Because I have found, at least in my own life, that as you get older and as you mature, there are some things in my life I regret having done. There’s some pain in my life I regret having caused.
You can’t navigate your life forward beating yourself up every day for the pain that you caused a former friend, a former girlfriend, a former colleague, but you can’t live in that space, but you got to come to terms with that somehow.
Leder: Well, you can live in it a little because a little bit of guilt is a very positive lane corrector. You know how cars now have these warnings when you start to veer out of your lane? A little bit of guilt about your past behavior is like that kind of warning, like I never want to go back to being that kind of person.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Leder: I never want to go back to that kind of hurt, that kind of anxiety, that kind of embarrassment. So I think a little bit of living in the past is appropriate. You don’t want to be shackled by it, right? So there are real and concrete steps.
Maimonides, the greatest, in my opinion, thinker of the Middle Ages who died over 800 years ago now, talked about a four-step process for meriting forgiveness. By the way, not only forgiveness from the victim, but self-forgiveness, which is a very difficult thing. The first thing you have to do is stop that behavior. Just stop.
The second thing is confess that behavior out loud. Saying to one’s self, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll never do that again” is one thing. To say it out loud to another human being and to God is quite another. So confess, stop and confess.
And then, you know, thirdly, you have to seek forgiveness. Apologize. And finally, when in the position to commit that same mistake or sin or error again, and you do not, then you merit forgiveness. You have done everything you can do.
I’ll tell you, the sages are very wise. The ancient Jewish sages say that, if you have gone sincerely through these four steps and have sought forgiveness and the person you hurt refuses to grant that forgiveness three times, the sin is then upon that person. You have done everything you can do.
Tavis: Let me ask you this. This is a politically impolitic question coming at you like a fastball.
Leder: Aren’t they all?
Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. Like a fastball down the middle.
Leder: All right.
Tavis: But here it goes. You’re a Rabbi. If Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff were members of your synagogue and you had to counsel them…
Leder: What would I say?
Tavis: Can suffering transform — Dr. King put it this way. There’s some evil in the best of us and some good in the worst of us. Can suffering transform Harvey Weinstein? Can suffering transform Bernie Madoff?
Leder: It can. It doesn’t mean that it will. One has to be willing to go through those four steps I just suggested to you. I will say this about our feelings toward these people. There’s a beautiful line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, “Here I Am”, in which he says everyone is wounded and remembering a person’s wounds makes it easier to forgive.
So the first thing I do when I’m dealing with someone who’s done something horrible and who’s life is falling apart is I first ask myself, “What pain is there in me, what deficit, what shortcoming? Am I so perfect? Let’s give this person not a free pass, but a chance.” You know, people don’t get up in the morning and decide to be horrible people or misbehave.
I would say to Harvey Weinstein that the past cannot be undone. It can be atoned for and this is probably the last opportunity you will have in your life to become a different kind of person. And only you are capable of that. No one can do this for you, but you have an opportunity here.
I say in the book, everyone walks through hell, but the point is not to come out emptyhanded. You, Harvey, will decide whether or not you come out of this hell emptyhanded. That’s your decision and there will be people who will support you in that effort, but the effort has to come from you. So I don’t think any person…
Tavis: Is beyond redemption.
Leder: Well, is beyond the opportunity. There are people who are beyond redemption because they won’t grasp the opportunity. Pain is an invitation. It is an invitation to lead a different kind of life. It’s an invitation to be a more empathetic person. It’s often an invitation to be a kinder and gentler person. That’s why the book is called “More Beautiful Than Before”.
Pain can result in you and your life being more beautiful than it was before, even though it’s broken. You know, in a way, we are more whole when something in us is broken because it forces us to become a more sensitive and better human being, assuming we’re willing to grasp that opportunity.
Tavis: What’s the great obstacle — I got a minute and a half to go — what’s the greatest obstacle that we face to not wallow in our pain?
Leder: The greatest obstacle we face is — there’s a chapter in the book entitled “The Prisoner Cannot Free Himself”. We cannot get out of prison all by ourselves, the prisons we create in our lives, the addictions, the insecurities, the anxieties.
The greatest obstacle people in pain are facing is the lack of ability or the unwillingness or the fear or the narcissism or the stoicism that prevents us from reaching out to another human being, that prevents me from reaching out to you, my friend Tavis, and saying, “I’m in trouble and I need you.”
Tavis: Fortunately, he’s not in trouble, but if he were and ever needed me, he knows I’d be there.
Leder: That’s right, and I would ask.
Tavis: As we have been for each other for 30 years.
Leder: That’s right.
Tavis: I’m honored, as always, to have him on this program. Rabbi Steve Leder of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple has a new book out. It is called “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us”. I highly, highly recommend it. Rabbi Steve, good to see you.
Leder: Thank you, my friend.
Tavis: Love you, man.
Leder: You too.
Tavis: Up next, actor Paul Reiser. Stay with us.
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