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The Obstacle is the Way

January 17, 2021 | by Rabbi Philip Moskowitz

Sonia Vallabh was 27 when she discovered that she inherited the genetic mutation that killed her mother at age 51. Instead of crippling her, the news motivated her.

In 2009, Sonia Vallabh noticed that her mother’s memory had started to fail, soon followed by her ability to reason. Over the coming weeks and months, it was painful to watch as her mother spiraled into a state of constant confusion and discomfort. After her mother’s tragic passing in 2010 at the young age of 51, an autopsy showed that she had died from a rare type of disease known as prion disease.

At the time, Sonia was only 27 years old and feared that she had inherited the genetic mutation that causes this fatal disease. A blood test confirmed the worst. She carried the prion protein gene, a mutation that makes her nearly certain of sharing her mother’s fate, an early and untimely death. Instead of allowing this news to cripple her, Sonia used it as her inspiration and motivation. She became obsessed with learning more.

A recent graduate of Harvard Law School, Sonia had just started a new job as a legal analyst. Her husband, Eric, was a transportation analyst. Despite their successful jobs and upward career paths, they couldn’t stop thinking about prion disease. They wanted to understand the chemistry and biology behind it better. While a few friends were able to help them understand the science, they felt their overall understanding to be lacking.

They enrolled in night classes in subjects like biology and neuroscience and quickly recognized that this would require more of their attention and effort. As Sonia wrote in last year’s New England Journal of Medicine, both she and Eric left their previous careers and earned their Ph.D.'s in biomedical research from Harvard in the spring of 2019. They started a nonprofit, Prion Alliance, in the hopes of raising money for research, and now operate a lab at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard.

The couple’s drastic career change worried their families. Did they really want to spend all their time thinking about her disease? Were they prepared to waste years of their lives on a quest that would almost certainly fail? But Sonia and Eric would not be deterred. Sonia recognizes the oddity of her new career path. “I still occasionally encounter the concern that there is a conflict of interest inherent in researching your own disease. But far from seeing a conflict of interest, I see an exquisite alignment of interests…”

Now 37 years old, Sonia Vallabh remains as determined as ever. In 2016, with the help of IVF and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, she and Eric had a baby daughter who is free of the mutation that killed her grandmother and is threatening the life of her mother. And, as of January of last year, they received approval from the FDA and their research study is already over-enrolled, comprised of people either suffering from or at risk of getting prion disease.

Instead of being crippled by her diagnosis, Sonia used her own personal challenge as inspiration to conquer this rare disease and save other people’s lives in the process.

Instead of being crippled by her diagnosis, Sonia used her own personal challenge as inspiration to conquer this rare disease and save other people’s lives in the process. Sonia is part of a long history of heroic individuals who use their life’s circumstances to better the lives of other people.

People often wonder why they experience challenges and adversity and why they sometimes experience hardship. And while of course we can never fully know the answer to these questions, it is clear that we are meant to use those experiences to help other people, to become more empathetic and compassionate, to better understand the suffering that people go through, and, ultimately, to do our part to lessen that pain and suffering.

Losing a loved one, going through an illness, challenges with fertility, difficulty with finding your soul mate, or suffering through financial strains are all examples of life experiences that can be crippling. They are tragic, debilitating, and oftentimes unbearable. But if they make you more empathetic and compassionate to other people’s pain, if you allow yourself to share your experiences to give a friend inspiration and encouragement, if you use your life circumstances to hear the silent cry of the afflicted, then these experiences can also bring some much-needed light into the world.

This is one of the underlying reasons the Torah commands Jews to treat the widows, orphans, and indigent with extra respect and kindness. Since we were once enslaved in Egypt, we know how terrible it felt to be degraded, persecuted and desperate. The Torah is telling us to use our national history and better the lives of other people in need.

The Boulder in the Middle of the Road

In the introduction to his book, “The Obstacle is the Way,” Ryan Holiday tells the story about a king whose people had grown soft and entitled. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he hoped to teach them a lesson. His plan was simple: He would place a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city. He would then hide nearby and observe their reactions.

How would they respond? Would they band together to remove it? Or would they get discouraged, quit, and return home? With growing disappointment the king watched as subject after subject came to this impediment and turned away, or, at best, tried halfheartedly before giving up. Many openly complained or cursed the king or fortune or bemoaned the inconvenience, but none managed to do anything about it.

After several days, a lone peasant came along on his way into town. He did not turn away. Instead, he strained and strained, trying to push it out of the way. Then an idea came to him. He scrambled into the nearby woods to find something he could use for leverage. Finally, he returned with a large branch he had crafted into a lever and deployed it to dislodge the massive rock from the road.

Beneath the rock was a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which said: "The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Remember, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition."

Every challenge we experience can also be an opportunity. If we embrace it, it becomes our path forward. By turning adversity into our calling, every obstacle in our way becomes our way.

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