WWhen we were younger, my older sister Heba kept a picture on her dresser in our bedroom that always caught my eye. She said I was the redhead girl in the picture, but I was born with blonde curls and had light brown hair at the time. The girl in the photo was named Sara, like me, and I would later learn that the full story in the photo was too confusing for me to understand at the time.
My family is Druze, a thousand-year-old religion whose followers live mainly in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. One of the beliefs of the faith is that every human being is reincarnated. Your body is a shell and your mind can claim another form of life to live on indefinitely. Many Druze say that some people can remember details of their past lives. My sister is one of them.
I am more skeptical of spirituality than Heba, but I have never denied his experience. Because I had heard other stories about people from our hometown in Lebanon who died but “came back to life” in new bodies, it didn’t seem like a stretch that she did too. Still, I wouldn’t speak openly about his past life. It wasn’t until I started living with my sister in New Jersey during the pandemic that I learned to suppress my cynicism – and embrace her beliefs.
I started questioning religion when I was 12 years old. My family had just moved from New Jersey to Lebanon, and I was shocked at the rampant bigotry. Then, when I was 16, my father died of cancer, and I kept hearing the Arabic phrase “maktub“-” it is written. “While I understood the point of this principle (accepting one’s destiny), I thought that it made all our human efforts in vain. As I could not find solace in the acceptance based on faith, I instead sought advice in books on atheism, philosophy and science Believing that our time on Earth is limited has helped me to live fully.
Heba, who is eight years older than me, has always been more spiritual. Unlike me, the way she made sense of her struggles was through faith, not necessarily in God, but in something greater, which included her belief in past lives. She was only three years old when she first said her name was Nada and pretended to bake sandwiches for her “husband,” Amin, whom she would enjoy when he came home from work.
When my mother mentioned this, a friend said that she knew a woman named Nada who lived half an hour’s drive from our town. Nada had died but had been married to a man named Amin. A few days later, Nada’s mother and sister knocked on our door and said that they had heard of Heba. (Word is circulating in the small villages.) They asked if Heba would visit their house to see if she could recognize anything, maybe Nada’s room or her favorite corner. Out of politeness, my mother cautiously accepted.
At home, Heba asked about an older woman who was sitting in a corner of one of the bedrooms. She was supposed to refer to Nada’s grandmother, who has since died, the family said. Heba also recognized Nada’s bedroom and remembered how much she enjoyed spending time in the family’s garden. They took these clues as confirmation that my sister had memories of Nada’s life.
My parents emigrated to the United States soon after, but Nada’s memories remained with Heba. Years later, while vacationing in Lebanon with my father in 2000, she asked me if she could see Nada’s family again. During their second meeting, she found out that at the time of her death, Nada had a baby girl named Sara – the redhead in the photo – and she was 16, almost the same age as Heba. Sara’s family had told her about my sister and they agreed to meet.
The two girls, Heba said, felt uncomfortable.
“So are you my mother?” Sara asked sarcastically. She complained about her stepmother, who Sara said had tried to get rid of all traces of Nada. Sometimes Sara would address Heba as if she were Nada: “They burned your sweater, and that’s all I had left of you,” Sara said. In fact, my sister was in her second year in high school, she lived in New Jersey, with posters of Mariah Carey on her wall.
My sister said she felt like she forced Nada’s family to review an unresolved trauma, and it weighed on her. Over the next few years, she tried to put all the experience behind her. She went to university in Lebanon a few years later, and Sara unexpectedly showed up at her door to invite Heba to her wedding. My sister did not go.
Then, in 2015, while living in Los Angeles, Heba discovered Past Life Regression Therapy, which uses hypnosis to help people recall memories from past lives. Heba realized that there were people all over the world, not just from our small town in Lebanon, who also believed in reincarnation. She quickly became certified in regression in past lives and, after years of trying not to think about reincarnation, found solace in her ability to heal.
On the other side of the country I was starting a career in journalism and was ambivalent about Heba’s new job and it was only last year when my sister and I were living under the same one again. roof, that I started to really reconcile our worldviews.
Before that, living on my own for the past few years meant that I could carefully organize my life and only engage with people who shared my beliefs, mostly fellow journalists who put evidence-based facts first. I thought I was open-minded – until I had to discuss politics and spirituality with my family around the dinner table.
Last December, during the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the first time in 800 years that the two planets aligned incredibly close to each other and were visible in the sky, I joined Heba and our pandemic pod for a ceremony at a friend’s house. We sat in a circle, drew cards from an oracle deck, and wrote down our thoughts and hopes in an attempt to manifest our goals for 2021.
It was new and refreshing for me; it sounded like much needed talk therapy after a year of isolation. And, my oracle cards were weirdly on point. The first one said “Growth” and mentioned leaving behind outdated relationships, beliefs or systems. The beliefs I needed to let go, however, were not spiritual.
I still have questions – lots of questions – about past life regression therapy, but I support Heba and his work. Some of my closest friends have become his clients. She has offered to do a session with me several times, but I don’t think I believe in therapy enough to break down. And if I do, I’m afraid of what I will find out.
I also drew a second card that night: “Boundaries”. Heba and I looked at each other. The map displayed the symbol of a red jaguar with its fangs hanging out. As my friend read the card aloud, I was amazed at how elegantly she spoke about my struggle to be independent from my family while accepting them. The jaguar “has a healthy sense of limits and respects magic and the unknown,” he said. I might not be ready to face my past lives, but at least I’m more open to having fuller experiences in this one.
© The New York Times