A young man steps through a doorway and the color of his suit changes from one side to the other.
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The Art of Growing New

The new does not need to deny the old its truth, only to expose new possibilities.

The art of growing new shares much with sister arts such as forgiving, wasting time, laughing and crying, playing (especially with children and animals), gardening, dreaming, forgetting and remembering — and of course, walking. There is also the art of being ill, and the art of healing, and the art of receiving whatever comes your way — no matter what — as a gift. This latter art is the hardest art of them all. “Sorry,” I insist, “That is no gift.” Or I say, “Thank you very much,” and when no one is looking, I toss it in the compost. But spurned gifts don’t decompose, they merely await their receipt.

I know a man who took to playing the trumpet as a boy and followed his musical passion to the Juilliard School where during his first year his lips lost their muscle tone, a deficit that compromised his professional dream. When I met him, he had retooled and become a psychoanalyst and a professor of psychology. One of his clinical interests, he told me, derived from his observation that his patients “resonated” within him. Psychotherapy, he came to realize, is a way of “living music” with another person, for it entails passing sound back and forth across an interpersonal divide. His observation freed him and his patient to step alternatively into the roles of performer and audience member.  

It turned out that his musical gift had not abandoned him, nor he it, when his lips numbed. He could still perform musically, but now as an instrument of healing. Had his career as a trumpeter not been impeded, would he have come to this new insight and practice? I do not know. But I once heard him draw subtle sounds out of a shofar as if he were healing and being healed across the interpersonal divide. From unhealed lips emerged sounds that could open the heart. The wounded trumpeter had become new. 

He seemed to me at that moment to embody the Bob Dylan lyric: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” I understand this to mean that when he was young, he was stuck. He believed he was who others had told him he was, and he often failed at being who he was supposed to be. Getting older, the lyric implies, can be freeing if it offers you access to the art of growing new. New, in the sense I’m using here, lacks any meaning in the comparative form; there is no “newer.” Either you are new or you are not. Most of the time, you are not.  

The new, like the now, blatantly opposes the hegemony of the old. It challenges the wisdom and poetry of the ages, scoffs at the words of the old preacher Ecclesiastes, who said: “What was is what will be, what has already happened is what will happen, there is nothing new under the sun.” The new, for this reason, has earned many enemies.

But the new does not need to deny the old its truth, it only exposes new possibilities. The new lurks in the sudden, glories in the unexpected, and relishes the truth of beginning. While the old may solace us by becoming our keepsake, the new may terrify us by eluding our grasp. It is a happening, not a datum. The new is a kind of rift in consciousness. It cannot be had; it can only be lived.

And it can be voiced, as when Mordechai declared to Esther, “Who knows if it was not for this moment you became the Queen of Persia?” Or when the king of Nineveh, having heard Jonah’s prophecy of doom, said to his people, “Who knows if God will not change his mind?” And even the tired preacher Ecclesisates, sick with his life-draining knowledge, observes: Who really knows what is good for a person? Therefore I praise joy. No wonder his words are read on Sukkot, the day of dwelling in a temporary hut, the great holiday of insecurity, uncertainty and not knowing that follows Yom Kippur.

May you and I grow new this year. New not forever, but new for now. May we taste, if only for a moment, the flavor of knowing in our flesh that we are not an accident, not a mistake, that we were and are intended, that we are here to perform as only we can. And to hear the music only we make with others across the interpersonal divide.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Sep. 16, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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