It was three days before Passover. The air smelled of spring and liberation; cleaning materials and excitement. It was early evening as I stood determined, but fearful, in front of a cement block. Determined to break it in two. Afraid of failure. It was the end of karate class and we were standing outside Sensei’s house, breaking blocks. I waited until last. I watched Ella break hers and Jake break his and Ruth break hers. And then there were no more excuses. It was just me and the brick.
Sensei has always liked to connect karate to the Jewish festivals. The same Creator made it all, she likes to say. So as the festival of freedom approached, she thought we’d break through our limitations with block breaking.
I practiced my hand technique in the air first. Sensei gave her approval, so I got ready to do it right on the brick. I tried to envision that blissful feeling of moving right through the brick, as it breaks in two beneath your hand. Physical reality surprisingly bending to your intention. But I was also unwillingly envisioning the thud of hand on brick, of physical reality refusing to budge.
I brought down my hand.
Frustration pouring through, I took a breath. I should be able to do this, I thought. I’ve been practicing Karate for sixteen years, since I was eight. It’s not like I haven’t done this before. But we didn’t do it a lot, and I’d always been uncertain about it. I took another breath. Imagined it breaking. Tried again.
Now the others felt bad, they each tried to encourage me, to give me advice – which just makes me feel worse. I was strengthening my belief that it just wouldn’t break.
After a few more attempts, Sensei suggested to leave it and come back another day. She’d leave it outside for me, so I could come back and try a fresh.
I walked home, feeling very un-liberated— trying unsuccessfully to convince myself that my liberation was to let go of needing to succeed. Wondering what was holding me back in life. What was I afraid of? Why was this bothering me so much?
A few days later it was the night of the Passover Seder. My family and I, like most Jewish families around the world, sat at a festive table retelling the story of the Israelites redemption from the slavery of Egypt. We ate bitter herbs to remember their suffering as well as matzah— the thin cracker-like unleavened bread— to remind us that their hurried escape left no time for their bread to rise. I wondered what it was like for them that night. Did they really believe they were going to leave Egypt? That suddenly they would be free people? Could they see beyond physical reality as they knew it? Did they need to believe change could happen, to make it so?
The next few days were spent with family and friends, celebrating some festive time off. After that, it was time to go back to college, take exams, write papers as well as try to find a new apartment and job for after college. The brick was mostly forgotten. I never did go back to try to break it again.
The months passed and as summer came, unexpected struggles were brought to my attention. I came down with a flu virus that didn’t go away. It turned out to be the beginning of a little understood chronic illness that threw my entire life off track.
Since then, I have been fighting invisible bricks. At times it took all my will power just to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Taking a shower was near the realm of impossible. Now, three years later, I am able to get out of the house, but walking any distance or carrying anything still gives me pain, and I can only go a short distance. The limits on my ability to function and live the life that I want to live make despair very seductive. Yet what has gotten me through is believing that change is possible, that the future will still be bright. That even when physical reality is blocking my every move, when my body feels so weak and in pain, I know that I can break through. I know it is possible to break that brick, even if I haven’t succeeded yet. I know that it isn’t immediate and it isn’t easy. But it can happen in time.
I may not have broken that physical brick before the festival of liberation that year. But since then, I’ve been fighting painful invisible limits in a seemingly endless battle for my freedom.
As Sensei says, the same Creator made it all. I don’t know whether the Israelites needed to believe they would be free in order to be freed, but I don’t think you can break a brick when you don’t believe you can. I think that what held me back that day, was my inability to believe that I was strong enough. And if there is one thing that my painful struggle with this illness has slowly taught me, it’s that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. I have been breaking bricks all along.