It was a great privilege to know Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, Nobel Peace Prize winner, author of 40 books, university professor, and most importantly, a tireless campaigner for human rights.
Mr. Wiesel suffered from severe daily migraines. Both of his parents and many members of his extended family suffered from headaches. The only year in his life without headaches was when he was in Auschwitz. He was highly functional with a very busy schedule despite his chronic migraines. I invited him to speak about his headaches at the First International Headache Summit held in Tel-Aviv, Israel, on November 16, 2008 and he generously agreed (here is a photo from the event). This is an excerpt from his presentation which was published in the journalHeadache:
“Thank you very much, Dr. Mauskop. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, and when I consider a topic I tend to return to my primary source: do we find headaches in Scripture? Perhaps you remember the prophet Elishah, a very special man, the disciple of Elijah. The woman who was his host in a certain village was barren, and she was embarrassed to tell him this. Elishah’s servant knew of her distress, however, and he so informed the prophet whom he served. Elishah blessed her with a son. The son grew, and one day when he was in the fields with his father, he cried out, “My head, my head. I have a headache.” Thus, for the first time, headache enters old religious texts. The father asked his servants to bring the boy home, where he suddenly died. His mother ran to the prophet, to Elisha, and said, “I asked you for a living son … not for a dead one.” At that point we first bear literary witness to the act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The prophet administered it resuscitation, and the boy lived once again.
When one poses a question, the Talmud may offer what amounts to advice. What happens if a person has a headache? What should he do? You or I would answer, Go to a doctor, but the Talmud advises, Go study Torah. Now, why should a person who has a headache go and study? Is it because when he or she studies, they forget their headache? or maybe they get a different headache. Everything is possible.
Now, I must tell you, Dr. Mauskop, you kindly asked me to come and see you for my headaches. I didn’t come because I did not want to embarrass you, to cause you to have to admit failure, because nothing has ever helped me. I began having headaches—I’m speaking to you as a patient—at age 7. At age 7, I already was taking pills for headache; everybody in my family was! My mother had headaches; my father had headaches; my grandfather had headaches. So I lived with headaches from my childhood on.
But then something bizarre happened: the day I entered Auschwitz, the headaches disappeared. I studied what you told me about pressure, about headaches as the result of pressure. But that seemed a contradiction. If ever I had pressure, it was there. In the camp. Every moment was pressure. But the headaches disappeared.
The moment I arrived at the first orphanage in France, after Liberation, they came back. The first doctor I went to I saw for my headaches. They are still with me. And they are not rare; they are still frequent. I get up every day with a headache, and once a week, I have what I call the “deluxe” version, a real headache. My problem is if I have to give a lecture that day—and I teach full time—or that evening, what do I do? If I take strong pills, I’m afraid it could affect my thought processes. I try to cope. I didn’t come to see you. I thought, why should I give you pain by realizing that you cannot help my own?
At my age, and rather suddenly, I’ve developed other kinds of pains that I didn’t have before. Back pains, hand pains. So I’ve been to all kinds of doctors for these various woes, and—I don’t have to tell you—the interesting part is, usually when you have a new pain, the old pain recedes. Not in my case. My headache is so faithful to me; it’s so loyal that it remains present always.
I got up this morning with a very, very bad headache. So, I said to my headache, “You won’t win.” I speak to my headache; I personalize it. I say, “I know who you are, and I know what you want, and it won’t work.” And the pain says to me, “Let’s see, Wiesel.” And so we fight.
Through my studies, I’ve discovered that many writers and artists and painters have suffered from headaches, and they have had their own distinctive methods of coping. Dumas used to place a wet cloth on his forehead. Hemingway used to do write standing, because this seemed to afford some relief. Many of the great writers had headaches. Perhaps writers have headaches because they are afraid of critics.
And to this day I have not found a way of handling my own headache except in my own fashion, which is to live with it. It hasn’t slowed down my work. I teach full-time, and I am a very obsessive professor. In some 40 years, I don’t think I’ve ever given the same course twice. I want to be the best student in the class. That’s how I learn and grow with the students. And all that with my constant companion, this headache.
Now maybe once I’ve finished, you will have a session and say, “Now what can we do for Elie Wiesel’s headaches?” But don’t bother; even if you were to try, I don’t think you could help. But perhaps you can use my example to encourage your patients. Patients will come to you and say, “Why can’t you help me?” And you can say, “Look. He couldn’t get cured, and nevertheless he works. He goes on, functioning, studying, teaching.”
Maybe psychologically I need the headaches to work? I’m sure some of you have had that idea in mind. Maybe he needs the added challenge … this extra burden. In that case, why did I have headaches at age 7? And 8 … 9 … 10? Hereditary? Sure. Pressure? No. What pressure? School pressure? I was a good student.
So do I need these headaches? Personally, I think not. I think I could work as well without them. Are they part of me? Are they part of my psyche? Is my headache part of who I am? If so, what a terrible analysis … what a terrible definition of self! Am I my own pain?
You know Descartes, the philosopher. As a young man I admired him because he was one of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages, helping us emerge from the darkness. He came out with the formula, and I’m sure most of you recall it from school, cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. And later I discovered about Descartes things I didn’t admire that much. He had written a book on science. When he read about the tragic fate of Galileo, he was so afraid of the Inquisition that he didn’t publish his book. Hey, Descartes, that’s no way to behave. You, the philosopher, should be afraid of the tormentor? But he was. So I began reanalyzing, reevaluating Descartes, and concluding that maybe he’s wrong even with his cogito ergo sum! I’m a student of the Talmud. I encourage students to ask questions … even to question the questions. And so I thought, Maybe he’s wrong.
I think he is. I would say, “I think, therefore you are.” My thought must involve you. My life must involve you. I am who I am, not because of myself, but because of my attitude towards you. One also could say, “You think, therefore I am.” Your thought challenges mine. Your existence is a challenge to mine. Your life is maybe a question … and an answer in relation to my own. Alone, who are we? Nobody is alone.
So, how might I use even the pain of headache for the benefit of someone else? How can I do that? By doing my work, sure. So I go on; I’m a writer; I’m a teacher; I go around the world trying to do my best to improve some conditions here and there, always failing—but it doesn’t matter … I will go on trying.
One last thing to add, something perhaps to tell your patients: when a person says, Leave me alone, I have a headache, it’s wrong. Never leave me alone. Never think that you bother me. I may have the worst headache in my life, but if someone needs me, I have no right to say, “But I have a headache.” That is not a sufficient excuse.”