What sort of learning really matters when it’s all over? | Whale’s Tales

It will be about what does not perish when we do.

While I would not wish it on anyone, I’d be wrong if I failed to talk about some powerful good that has come of this cancer.

I find the same thoughts again and again in conversations with people I’ve met who’ve been through any tough life experience, and in literature, from Pinocchio in the belly of the whale to various Native American tales, and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

“Death is hardly more severe,” Dante writes in the first book of his trilogy, “The Inferno,” of his passage through his own “dark wood,” that is Hell, under the guidance of the Roman poet Virgil.

But, the poet adds, that to talk about the positive developments that came of it, “I will treat of other things that I found there.”

As a believer in God, I have often asked myself one particular question since the first time I heard men and women recount their near-death experiences, when, they claimed, a being of light allegedly asked them: “What did you learn?”

From that question, I followed a corollary: what sort of learning really matters when it’s all over? It makes intuitive sense to me to believe that whatever it turns out to be, it will have nothing to do with academic degrees, or titles, or awards; it will be about what does not perish when we do.

At this point, to what I hope will be only your brief annoyance, I’ll take a seemingly pointless turn to talk about teaching myself Biblical Hebrew.

“Biblical Hebrew?! What? Are you nuts?” I can hear my father say. “No one speaks Biblical Hebrew any more! I’ve gotta have the only kid on the block…”

And I’d respond, “Well, dad, it’s not really about Hebrew – It’s about what I’m learning as I teach myself Hebrew.”

“And what’s that?” he’d snort.

For one thing, I’d respond, I’ve had to confront an inner arrogance I didn’t know I possessed. It assured me for many years that learning a language would always come naturally to me. Which translated to, “No need to sweat it.”

Well, in the present push, that has not turned out to be untrue. I have had to “sweat it,” plenty.

For one thing, Biblical Hebrew is hard. And it is outside of the Indo-European language family, which includes English, German, Italian, Greek and Latin. While those tongues were easy enough for me, stepping outside of that group will always mean at a deep level, languages from other families, with their different underlying structures and logic, will always be something of a left- hand thing to me.

And for that reason, with Biblical Hebrew — and I assume it is so with other Semitic languages — I have learned that even to “get it” at the simplest level, I must pay the most exacting attention to every jot and tittle.

In old Hebrew, the hardest stuff comes first. Like mastering all those dots and lines and other markings, called Nikud — it means “dots” — that indicate vowels, which were in the spoken language, but not written down until the 10th century, by which time the Masoretes (Jewish scribe-scholars) had spent nearly 1,000 years inventing the system.

Funny, how a few months in the intensive care unit of a hospital — my “dark wood” — could act as a leveling process, bringing me down from the high perch I had unconsciously and wrongly set myself on, to earth.

And how that dawning realization, slowly and begrudgingly at first, shown an unwelcoming light on some truly unsavory things in my character I had been unaware of up until then. Nasty stuff that was obvious to anyone else who cared to notice. Like a quick temper, bitterness and a victim mentality.

I have written about those things and more here. The paradox is that cancer was what opened the way for this column. Throughout most off my life, all the stuff I had read and remembered lay dormant in my head, amusing mostly me. Until 2021. And getting it all out to anyone it could help would have been impossible without this cancer, without my own “dark night” of the soul.

What I saying in the end is that I believe the final chapters of our lives, as painful as they may be, could turn out to be our finest.

Robert Whale can be reached at robert.whale@auburn-reporter.com.