Monthly Archives: August 2015
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come ’round right.
I happen to really like that hymn (by Joseph Brackett.) It’s meant to be a description of a dance, with the turning being a dance step that you can take. I’ve often pictured myself, twirling gracefully and beautifully ending up, in someone’s arms, in the valley of love and delight. That sounded beautiful. The reality is, of course, more awkward, especially since my dancing occasionally involves bumped elbows, stubbed toes and excuse me’s. At the end, the result is being sweaty and exhausted with no valley of love and delight in sight.
And while change isn’t mega big in Judaism, as we like our traditions and work hard on keeping them, there is something about that hymn. It’s a very Jewish concept, turning and changing until we get it right. In fact, the Hebrew word “T’shuva,” which is often translated as repentance actually means turning. We need to turn away from wrongful action and towards doing the right thing. We say the same thing about the Torah – turn it and turn it again for everything is within it. So, change (our changing) can be good.
At this point in my life, I no longer dislike change quite the way I used to. It would be foolish, like disliking air or disliking walking as a mode of transportation. These things are a big part of my life, and there’s no point in disliking something that’s always there. For instance, this year, once again, I have moved. I am in a new place, meeting new people, trying to grow new roots and build new connections. I am learning how to function and find things, to develop routines and achieve successes all over again, starting from square 1. You’d think after so many changes, I’d have gotten good at it – I’d be turning towards right action gracefully, in someone’s arms, and ending up in a valley of love and delight. Unfortunately, the bumped elbows and stubbed toes are very much still present.
There is a difference, though. Change is an expected dance partner now. I no longer dread each change and waste time and energy fighting against it. I may not do it gracefully but I do dance. I accept the need for change and I embrace the changes that come my way and I even, in Elul, try to make changes – to do the turning that I need to dance a bit better towards God and right action.
Don’t get me wrong! I still think this change-obsessed society often throws out the baby with the bathwater, cheerfully dumping traditions, beliefs, patterns and even relationships out the window like old clothing, no longer fashionable. I still prefer tradition to fashion. I hold stubbornly on to what I can in this mad twirling world. I think this is a good thing – not something I need to turn away from this Elul, but something I can turn towards as a piece of firm ground and a goodness.
But change is still there, still something I have to engage with. Over time, maybe I’ll be able to continue the journey I’m on, the one from wrestling with change to dancing through it. If I continue working towards true simplicity, a place where I just do God’s will without shame, without worry or fighting regardless of circumstance, maybe my dancing will become more graceful and the bumped elbows will be less. Eh, this place is a pretty good one. If I continue working on accepting change and embracing simplicity, maybe I’ll realize that this place – this part of my life – *is* the valley of love and delight.
I am a terrible student. I don’t listen very well, having a lot of my own ideas and things to think about. I am quick to judge what others tell me and I am slow to accept new ideas or different thoughts. I’m a bit careless and a bit lazy – I’ve never been big on notes or homework. I have always been a bit hard on teachers I have had over the years. Some that have had a choice about it have even asked me not to come back – they had put in a lot of work teaching me and it was going nowhere and I didn’t seem very grateful about it either.
God, therefore, who has a wicked sense of humour, made me a teacher. Then, God gave me some terrible students. I admit to having noticed my attitudes and approaches to learning, and been amused at how ugly and irritating they are in another person. I appreciate this particular joke, even if it is at my expense because it is truly beautifully executed. When we don’t learn from elders – be they parents, teachers, or coaches – God smiles a little and sends us young people in the form of children, students and anyone else we’re supporting to learn from.
It’s like the creation story, which I am studying right now, and which we’re getting closer to in the Jewish year. (I’m telling it with God in the feminine but works fine with either gender – I’ve heard it both ways. I just happen to really dislike They as a singular pronoun – it reads funny to me.) God has some beautiful children, and sends them to play in the garden. She tells them lots of ways they can play and have fun, and then he says, ‘Don’t’. ‘Don’t what?’ asks Adam. ‘Don’t touch the fruit on that tree.’ Says God. ‘What tree? Hey, Eve, look we have a tree we can’t touch!’ ‘Cool!’ ‘Just don’t touch it!’ says God, wondering whether She shouldn’t have stopped Creation with the sea monsters. She comes back a few hours later to see Her kids enjoying a lovely fruit snack. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to touch that tree?’ ‘What tree?’ ‘I didn’t do it!’ ‘You did too’ ‘Eve made me!’ ‘I did not!’ ‘You did too!’ ‘Did not’ ‘Did too!’ So, God, with a growing headache, gave them a time out and pronounced the curse that has continued to echo down through the generations, ‘may your children be just like you!’
My children are just like me, some of them. Of course, some of them are completely different. They’re more like my teachers or parents, more like my mentors. I can learn from them all. It’s kind of cool, because even those kids that share my traits – even though some of them may be described by others as terrible students – they’re pretty darned wonderful. They’ve helped me realize all the ways in which I’m a wonderful student too. I care about the subject I’m learning and I like to go deeper into the questions and really understand the principles that make them work, not just learn the steps and formulas. I like most of my teachers and can be kind to them, talking to them like human beings and showing caring. I am patient and will slow down. I ask for help when I’m struggling without too much embarrassment, and (after some practice with gratitude) appreciate that help when it’s given. I am persistent – I won’t give up when I’m struggling, I’ll keep trying.
And God is happy to teach – maybe through new lessons, maybe through my kids, there will be a lesson. Elul gives me another chance to be a good student. I can learn from God’s little life lesson and be a better student. I can be slightly less lazy and slightly less angry, slightly less judgemental and slightly more grateful, slightly less self-focused and slightly more accepting. I can maximize my positive traits, noting the ones I appreciate in my students. I can laugh at myself (it always comes to that, somehow) and realize that as usual, God’s curse is a blessing. I am glad my children are just like me. I hope that I can, indeed, learn from them and continue to grow into a better student and as such, a better person.
I pride myself, you know, on being somewhat of a conservative. I don’t like change much. I avoid it. I try to maintain traditions, and when needed, to develop them. I pray and think and feel and believe that stability is essential and necessary. I also, because of communication challenges or because of trust issues, for whatever reason, don’t really like strangers. New people take me a long time to get to know and the more different from myself they are, the more I have a hard time with them. (Yay for a chosen profession where I constantly meet many strangers who are quite different from myself in lots of ways.) As well, as an immigrant and member of a minority faith, I grew up in a culture radically different from the one held by regular society, one in which attitudes towards people were more forcefully stated, where opinions were made more rapidly, which was, perhaps more rooted in the past. The way I was raised, politeness, acceptance, and honesty come in second, after intimacy, safe spaces and success (or at least survival.)
All these things came up in my mind when a friend sent me an article on race. How do I handle people who are not white? For a long time, this didn’t matter. I simply didn’t encounter people who weren’t white. There were none in the private school I went to, there were none in the Shul I went to, there were none in the university classes I happened to be in, there were none in the small city I lived in for years. I knew no-one who was all that different from me, race wise, and I had enough of my own differences, religious, ability and otherwise, to focus on. Race didn’t even pop up onto my radar.
There have been a number of reasons why it has lately. As someone who has taught all over Montreal, I’ve met any number of students and teachers who were not white. Also, I have people in my life who have been involved in the Native community. My children have taken an interest in issues of equality and justice. I’ve encountered some non-white people now. I’ve listened to childhood stories other than my own, dealt with different approaches to behaviour management and discipline, heard about how people have been disadvantaged or mistreated, encountered people who disagree with me about respect for authority and gender issues, and come face to face again and again with prejudice.
Mostly, I’ve come face to face with my own prejudice, because other people’s is less of my business. There’s quite a bit in the Jewish faith about dealing with my failings before I start poking at those of my fellow beings. I would love to say that I’m entirely free from prejudice in the areas of race and culture, that I’m colour blind and teach with no regard for the race of my students, except to be culturally aware, and ensure the curriculum and the materials I use are culturally appropriate and relevant and…none of this is true. Whether it’s because of my conservative leanings, my cultural background, my distrust of differences, I still find myself having to deal with my own prejudice.
I’ve struggled again and again with attitudes that are extremely ugly that show up in my head, from (using … for the race of your choice) “those … kids just can’t behave!” to “well, no wonder he’s struggling, he’s …” to “oh, given that he’s …, his parents must be disappointed in him,” both expecting more (or less) from certain groups, and thinking of them differently. There is no point whatsoever in my saying that I don’t think this way, because I do. I fight the attitudes of course – I don’t like seeing them, and so I do all I can not to act or talk or even think in a prejudiced way. I don’t know how often I succeed. Sometimes, I know I do – but sometimes, I’m sure I don’t.
It’s even harder when it comes to looking at the ways I benefit from these prejudices, and what I should or shouldn’t do about that. I’m white and I live in Canada – by those two facts, I’ve got some pretty amazing advantages. What do I do about the way these advantages are available to me, but not to the non-white people I encounter, or to people in other parts of the world?
Maybe the only thing I can do is remember that the prejudice is there. I’m in Hamilton now, and again, the people I encounter are mostly white. It’s easy to say that I’ve gotten past all these issues of privilege and prejudice and can now continue enjoying my comfortable life and appreciating how very inclusive I am. I think I can do better. I can learn more about different cultures and histories, right here. I can participate in anything that will help me learn and grow. I can keep fighting the prejudice-based thoughts that pop up in my mind. I can see if there are places I can contribute. And, of course, I can remember that my comfortable life comes to me at a price, mostly paid by others. That way, should the opportunity arise to pay a bit of it back, I am just a bit more likely to do so.
I’m a very forgiving person, or at least that’s how I see myself. I love forgiving others – it makes me feel all magnanimous and mature. I usually let things go after only a very minor, a token bit of an apology or even none at all.
Except when I don’t. And now and then, something hurts me a lot, and it leaves me feeling vulnerable and a bit broken and then – then forgiveness is a bit more difficult. In fact, basically, I don’t.
For me, it’s around trust. I have a number of attributes that could put me on the autism spectrum, and one of the biggest is that when I communicate, I don’t do a lot of interpreting of body language, or context for meanings and shades of meaning. Even when I think I’ve done an amazing job of telling two feelings apart although the words said were the same, and share this astonishing discovery, I find people looking at me with this expression which says, “yes, pink and green are different, aren’t you brilliant?” As for feelings that are as close together as violet and magenta, there’s no way at all.
People should know that by now. People shouldn’t trick me by saying one thing and meaning another. People shouldn’t lie to me. I am cautious these days, and have safeties up, and places where I don’t trust. Sometimes, however, those places are entered by someone to whom I offer closeness. Then, they lie about something emotional. When they do, especially when I’ve put all of me – my heart and soul – into a relationship, and then I discover that I’ve been thinking pink whereas actually they’ve been saying green all along – well, my heart breaks. It doesn’t matter if the person is a parent or a child, a beloved or a friend – it’s just, it’s just – it’s insuperable, that’s what it is. I can’t take it, I can’t fathom it and I feel like joining the autistic people in my life, and screaming, “liars! You are all liars and should go to the fields of punishment immediately!” as one child I know has been wont to do.
Forgiving that – that blatant disregard for my difficulty, that placement of a stumbling block before the blind – that is brutally hard for me. Oh, I know. It’s a misunderstanding, for gosh sakes! It’s barely worth mentioning. No one died, or even got seriously hurt. It’s an attitude problem having to do mostly with MY attitude. But yet – it hurts, and I can’t forgive it, and the pain keeps coming back again and again. Oh, it’s not that I actually want anything bad to happen to that person – in fact, I pray daily for good things to anyone I’m feeling this way – all hot and bothered and resentful – towards. I mean, yes, the thought of “I hope someone makes you question the world and yourself and feel as hurt and sad and broken as you’ve made me.” comes into my head. I am not, however, a little kid, and do have the skill to tell myself what’s wrong with this approach.
So, I pray about it. I try to think of the people involved in positive circumstances and remember things they did for me or things we did together that were worthwhile. I remind myself that the misunderstanding is from my side as much as theirs, and I write and say and think words of forgiveness. Yet, in my heart is that knot, so difficult to untangle. This Elul, I own it. I say clearly, “I do not always forgive easily.” I accept that dark part of me. Right now, that’s where I am. With God’s help, may this month move me to a place where I can forgive the unintentional (and maybe, while protecting myself, even the intended) betrayals in my life.
I heard the most horrible thing yesterday. It seems there’s a meme (that’s an idea that has gotten popular over the internet, as I understand the word) around the phrase “power of prayer.” It seems that to some, the phrase now means that you use prayer to deal with illness instead of clinically proven evidence based medicine. That’s frightening.
The only thing that I could think of is the drowning man. He prays to God to save him, and when a fisherman in a boat comes by, he doesn’t get into the boat, he says “God will save me.” Then, when the rescue copter flies overhead and lowers a ladder, he won’t climb it but says “God will save me.” When the coast guard throw him a life preserver from a nearby ship, he won’t grab it, and says “God will save me.” So, of course, he drowns. He stands before God and asks God why there was no response to his prayers. “What do you mean,” answers God, “I sent a boat, a helicopter, and a life preserver.”
Trust in God, in the power of the universe to make things work out is important and essential, powerful, magical and wonderful. But it can be misused. Anyone who thinks prayer will help without any additional action is being just as foolish as the drowning man. Yet, people still do! So, others reject faith. How, they ask, can they trust someone who encourages people to kill others, to refuse medical help, to do all the crazy things that people do in the name of faith?
The thing about faith, however, and this holds just as true for adherents of organized religion as anyone else, is that everyone’s faith is their own. No one can make me believe a certain way, or think a certain way, no matter what. In fact I chose the organized religion that I am in specifically because it lets me choose my belief to a large extent. So, I can choose to trust God – to pray for everything I need – but to depend on the actions I take and the help I can get from people, God’s representatives.
In the Judaism I follow, one is certainly not supposed to just pray for something and expect God to deliver with no assistance. One is supposed to do one’s best to deal with a need or situation and then to pray that one’s actions are met with positive results, that one has the strength to do what one needs to, that one has the fortitude to deal with whatever those results are. This isn’t necessarily the “sun stopped in the sky” and “walls fell down” type of miracle, but a sudden good mood, a bit of courage where it was lacking, a fortuitous phone-call – those types of miracles are enormously powerful, and something I can trust God to provide.
It’s a two way street, trust is. In every mature relationship, people trust each other to help to some extent when asked, but at the same time, to give each other the freedom to live and to learn and to act. God trusts me to do my best, to work and to learn and to grow and to ask for help when I need it. I trust God to leave the world working the way it works and to keep giving me challenges to learn from and opportunities to grow. I believe in the power of prayer – which is why when I’m sick, I’ll be praying hard, right after I call the doctor.
Since I’ve come to Hamilton, my life has been about people – the people I left behind whom I miss intently, the people who are here whom I get to see a lot more of, the people I am meeting, both professionally and personally, but most of all the people I depend on and those who depend on me. I never wanted to be independent. I am certain I can be, mind – there are many things I can do, and I know how to ask for help should I need it.
However, I think for cultural and emotional and spiritual and many other reasons, I am not as into independence as the average North American. I love the feeling of being a member of a group, of taking care of the people in it and of being taken care of. I want my grumbles to be heard as requests for help and I want to spontaneously help those around me and have that help welcomed. This is a woven tapestry idea, each thread intermingling with many others, contributing just a tiny but utterly necessary bit to the overall picture. It’s also a Jewish idea – one of the reasons we don’t count Jews, for example is because the oneness, the connectedness of the community is what is important, rather than the number of individuals. (That’s right, – we don’t count Jews because all Jews count. I appreciate religious puns.)
Yes, I know it’s important not be clingy and dependent, but like everything else, this is a balance situation. It’s important to be open to support and assistance too, both giving and receiving it. When I work as hard as I can, I don’t do so to be successful or secure. I do so because I know there are people depending on me and needing me to earn a bit more. When I do the dishes, I don’t do so because the dirt bothers me or because I’m worried about getting sick, I do so because the dirt bothers people in my family and I’m worried about them being sick. Sometimes, this attitude leads to expectations that aren’t and can’t be met. What happens when a friend is more independent that I am? The possibilities for us to hurt each other are so many!
I am trying to participate in a comfortable group evening, and she is trying to have some quiet reading time alone. I am appreciating a kitchen where people can bump into each other and pass things, and he is wishing for enough space to get work done without people too close. I am hoping for some help to come with a heavy task and she is wondering why, if I want help, I don’t ask for it. I am offering comfort during a sad situation and he is trying to get some private time to deal with his sadness.
This is the challenge this Elul and always – how do I give people the privacy they need while retaining my need for interdependence and community? I don’t want to become so good at giving others space that I forget to give them love! On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt anyone through unwanted attention or assistance. I work at it – sometimes leaving people be, sometimes working to increase closeness, sometimes finding my own space, sometimes building connection with those who appreciate it. I try to use humour and faith, love and communication to get though. I try to count on others and let them count on me and yet be strong enough to be counted. Sometimes, it feels like an impossibly narrow path to walk. I remember the song, and, at the least, try to walk it without fear.
Seeing is believing, right? I mean, that’s what we’re supposed to believe in, the things we see. We’re taught that from pretty early on. The monster in your head isn’t real, the table in the kitchen is real. The imaginary friend isn’t real, the person telling you to pick up your clothes from the floor is real. If you can see it, it’s real. If you can’t, it’s not.
Science supports and expands this definition, as we grow. If you can test it, using a sense or a device that will feed information into one of the senses, then it is real. If you cannot perceive it using one of the five senses, test it and measure it – then, it isn’t.
This is a good simple definition of reality. It is one I can access and, being an intelligent person, can see the utility and the rationality of it. Really, it is not useful to walk into tables because you don’t believe in them. It is, in fact, painful. It is equally useless to run from a monster which will not catch you because it doesn’t exist. This is a waste of time. I support our belief system, where WYSIWYG is in charge (what you see is what you get) and am happy to rely on it.
However, when this system is applies to me, to the things I think and feel, believe and enjoy, it falls apart. Maybe there is an explanation involving neurons, childhood experiences, and genetics that explains my preference for the colour purple and distaste for green. Maybe there are reasons involving evolution, pheromones, nurture, and body temperature explaining why I love my children. These explanations exist, they’re fun to study and maybe they help some people. I, however, find them both unsatisfying and not very useful.
I like the colour purple because I like the colour purple. I don’t want to have my liking for purple explained away, because it serves me well to like purple – it helps me chose clothes, cards, decorations and anything else where colour is a factor. If I understood that my preference was based on the way the neurons in my head have built up, then why would I listen to that preference? And if I didn’t, how would I choose between the green and the purple dress?
Preference, love, courage, joy, belief…I would rather keep my ignorant, unscientific beliefs with no visible support whatsoever. If that means believing in imaginary friends, I will do so. “How,” ask certain of my friends “can you be so naïve, so unscientific? How can you ignore your senses this way? How can you be so dumb?”
Eh, I can be dumb. I go with what works. Believing that tables aren’t there doesn’t work for me. I bump into them and I get hurt. Believing that God doesn’t exist doesn’t work for me either. I feel bereft of support and I get hurt. Sometimes, that makes me sound dumb. Sometimes, the responses I get are, “you believe in WHAT?” I do. I believe in magic, and spirits and unicorns and I believe in God. My belief has given me much that is worthwhile, and I see no reason to dismiss it, just because it can’t be weighed, measured, proven or seen. I like the world I see when I believe in unicorns. It’s a more wonderful, more magical, more enjoyable world. I prefer “believing is seeing” to “seeing is believing” and I intend to go with that preference, even if there is no scientifically valid reason for it.
I’m a little bit crazy; I hear voices. Sometimes, I even talk back to them. According to the Jewish faith, we all hear voices. The yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) speak to us constantly, suggesting courses of action and activities. They’re a bit like the angel and devil characters in those cartoon shows that sit on your shoulder and tell you what to do. They’re both necessary, even. The yetzer ha-ra is the source of passion and drive. The yetzer ha-tov however is the one we’re supposed to listen to. As a kid, I used to wonder what the big deal was. Clearly, you listen to the nice looking angel, avoid the scary looking devil character and all is good. Why would anyone have trouble once those two appeared? In fact, I deeply wished that they would appear and sit on my shoulders and make it obvious because I had a very hard time figuring out what to do and clear, out-loud directions would have been nice.
It was only years later that I realized that my problem was exactly the same as that of the cartoon character’s. I was having trouble deciding which of the voices in my head to listen to. And just like in the cartoons, the voices themselves make it more difficult. The angel voice is often very quiet. Sometimes, it’s a little whiny or naggy, interfering with a good time. Sometimes, it’s slow, pedantic and boring. Sometimes, it sounds desperate – and desperation is never pretty.
The devil voice, on the other hand, that one is pretty on the ball. It tells me that it’s perfectly OK to ignore my work, to indulge in habits and behaviours that I know to be unhealthy, to be selfish, to lie, to do the things that I know are comfortable and easy and wrong. It often sounds like a friend, like someone who would make my life happier. Occasionally, it is loud – so loud that the choice seems obvious – whatever will shut up the screaming is a good thing. No? You’ve never done that? Never given something to a screaming kid just to make the noise stop? Now, imagine that same noise in your head. How good would you be at saying no?
I’m not, very. Often I give in. I have to be pretty clear with myself to not listen to that voice of desire that masquerades as need. If I do tell the screaming to stop, it switches to persuasion. It can be pretty deceptive, too. It promises that this time, it’s going to be OK. This time, doing the dangerous thing will lead to success, not disaster. This time, I’ll be able to stop after only one cookie. It claims that this activity is something I deserve. After all, I’ve worked so hard (at ignoring this voice) and done so well (at not hearing it) that it’s OK to take a break. It slips in, suggesting, cajoling, and of course, if that doesn’t work, screaming when I least expect it. It waits until I’m exhausted, or frustrated, angry or depressed, overwhelmed or hurried. That’s when it comes up and promises relief.
I am rarely as strong as I need to be to make that yetzer ha-ra shut up. I, in particular, can’t win an argument with it. It’s a heck of a lot smarter than me from what I can tell, and it sabotages my arguments because that voice is part of me, and can use my arguments and ideas, intellect and wisdom against myself. And the yetzer ha-tov? What on earth is the angel voice doing? It’s a polite voice. If you don’t request its opinion, it won’t give it to you. It will talk quietly, and only when there’s space, and it won’t interrupt. It doesn’t win arguments because it doesn’t argue.
It seems like a ghastly, unfair battle. Of course the yetzer ha-ra is going to win. Every time. I’m shocked when it doesn’t, even. The battle steals a ton of resources. I could be doing dishes or sending out resumes, writing friends or learning something new. Instead, I’m just writing, praying, walking, or even just sitting there trying to get the yetzer ha-ra to shut up before it convinces me again. It’s a worthwhile battle though. Winning, however temporarily is fantastic. If I can manage to hear the right voice – if I listen with sufficient care to make the right choices – I win.
I can accomplish more. My mood is better. I, only for a moment, feel good about the choices I’m making. My confidence increases. And the yetzer ha-ra is less loud, just a little less, just for a bit. It comes back – mostly I succeed for only moments at a time – but for a while there was a space of actual quiet in my head. Then, the yetzer ha-ra goes on to scream even louder and the battle begins again.
It’s all I question of which of the voices in my head I hear. And so, I continue with the battle, knowing that I will hear better the one I listen to more.
Go for a random hike. Pop bubbles. Watch kids swimming. Play a board game which you cheerfully don’t win. Talk philosophy (and nonsense). Hug someone you are close to. Write. Read a good book. Wash some dishes. Teach. Make some coffee. Admire trees. Do a scavenger hunt! Read a sweet Facebook post. Make the bed. Remember a bad (but funny) movie. Take a hot shower. Plan a kid’s future. Change the garbage. Eat yummy foods. Read out loud to a child. Sing. Visit with a distant friend. Learn a foreign language. Make up a story about another world. Share news. Rough-house. Joke, especially about serious sensitive subjects. See people after a long absence. Look up origins of words. Get lost while walking. Sleep. Pray. Listen to piano being played. Edit someone else’s writing. Connect with someone who is far away. That is what I did today. It has been a good day to just be.
A few days ago, I went for a walk with a fellow teacher who I met in Montreal. He now lives in Calgary but was up visiting family in Toronto. He drove up to Hamilton and then we went for a little after dinner walk. On the walk, we met someone who we last saw singing in a Montreal synagogue, but who actually lives in Toronto. She was spending time with her family in Hamilton and was delighted that we were around. We went to her parent’s place, which was cool. Now, for me to have planned this set of circumstances would be impossible. I couldn’t have known or planned the circumstances involved. Luckily, I had no need to plan this – it happened entirely on its own. My only role was to be happy about seeing people, to go out walking and to enjoy.
Sometimes, I fight and argue with the universe, insisting that things must be a certain way. The universe is completely delighted to fight back. The world has no problem with creating struggles that would let me grow and learn. In fact, I need to plan and work, strive and act. It is my responsibility and a necessary way to live. Without the work, I wouldn’t survive.
At the same time, if I let myself be in the world, even for brief moments at a time – if I let go of the struggles and the fuss and just have a day, God will fill it. At least today is such a day.
So, today, I get to write about sex. Well, I’m not going to, because this is Anna’s Jewish thoughts, and not that kind of blog, but I could. Because today’s word is ‘know’ and that means sex, right? At least the bible says so! “And he knew her” and then they had a baby. Sex is definitely intended in the use of the word.
The connection between knowledge and sex is one that deserves to be explored, even though that word makes people queasy. What was the bible thinking? Maybe someone long ago thought that to know someone, it’s important to be very close. Maybe that led to the idea that sex was involved. I already talked about the challenges with understanding another person two days ago, so now, when the challenge is greater, when it’s knowing rather than just understanding, words are clearly not going to be enough. I’m not going to know someone who I’ve talked to a whole lot, if I can’t even really understand her.
No, it’s not words, it’s intimacy, and from a simple, old-fashioned perspective, physical intimacy that leads to knowledge. Not sex, necessarily, but some form of intimacy – of physical sharing. I know people better if I hug them, hold them, bring them things, play with them, give them backrubs, sing with them, hold their hands, cuddle them; any kind of intimate and intense connection contributes to knowledge. Heck, I even know people better if I fight with them!
And it’s vital. Being known – being really heard and understood and accepted as exactly who I am – that’s something I crave, and maybe all of us need. Its lack is a reason people who kill themselves will occasionally write in their goodbye notes – no one knows what I’m really like. It’s described as a reason for marriage and divorce. “He’s the only one who truly knows me.” “She doesn’t know a thing about me any more.” It’s a big deal.
It’s so much of a craving that people will compromise aspects of who they are in exchange for being known. I certainly will. I’ll put on a mask that will get people to like me more, I’ll wear or not wear things, I’ll try to say the right things or do the right things so that people will want to be closer to me, to be more intimate with me, to know me. This, of course, is ridiculous, because they just know the presentation-me and I feel even less known and more hollow.
Many of us walk around with the presentation masks that we hope will get us known. Maybe that’s why we want intimacy. It’s during the intense touching and holding that love-making involves that those masks have a chance to b dropped and that we can get to know the people we hide. Oh, I know. There are other ways to be intimate, and it is possible to have sex with no intimacy at all. Still, it’s a simple path to intimacy, readily accessible to many and fairly satisfying in and of itself.
But it can be scary! Sex, misused (and it often was in the bible) is terrifying and dreadful and one wonders how anyone could see any knowledge or connection there. Forced intimacy is so scary and disgusting, in fact, that as well as presentation-masks, we create privacy-walls, ways that will keep us safe from even the most minute forms of forced intimacy. Maybe I don’t want to answer a question that feels challenging or intrusive? Maybe I’ll just ignore the person asking or answer rudely to make that person go away. Maybe I’m not sure if I want that person to know me, even on a superficial level? Maybe I’ll simply be nice and bland and friendly and answer “Fine. Ok. Nothing. ” when someone tries to break in. Maybe I’ll be “too busy” to meet, mention my many chores, complain of the proverbial headache. It’s not hard to hold people so far at bay that there’s no touch between them at all.
It’s possible to swing so far into the direction of privacy-walls that one is never real, never known. This is not only unhealthy, as it can leave a person feeling truly alone and uncared for, but it’s also cruel. Sure, no one wants un-asked for intimacy thrust upon them. Yet we want to be known so badly and so much that being unknown is still one of the crueler punishments that can be inflicted by a group on a person. Being shunned, excommunicated, ignored, given the silent treatment – these are all harsh responses to people for offences – ones that hurt a lot.
Somewhere, we have to make space in ourselves for healthy touch, for intimacy that nourishes. For me, this Elul is such a time. It’s an opportunity to remove the privacy-walls and the presentation-masks and allow myself to touch. I have to be careful not to force intimacy on those who don’t want it, but all I need to do is look around and I will find people who also crave being known, both within my family and outside of it. We will find intimacy we can share together, using touch (appropriate touch -come on, I told you it wasn’t that kind of blog) to get closer, not further away. Together, maybe we can start to know each other, just a little bit more.