Saturday, October 20, 2007

Maybe People Are Just Sad

My parents are both baalei teshuva and I've asked them about their stories multiple times. Because I like stories. And because, why wouldn't you ask something like that, providing you're comfortable enough to? And my parents, bless them, like to tell stories. I don't know where they got that from, because apparently, no one else we're related to does. But.

So my father has told me many times; his feeling of emptiness, his sense that there was more, his inability to logically accept what Traditional Jews have adopted as their creed. (A question; it has become my impression that Traditional Jews - a movement somewhere between Reform and Conservative- only exist in the Midwest. Is this true? Has anyone else heard of them? As an American movement, I mean.) The complete story is actually fairly complex and fascinating, but I'm not gonna go into all that now. The basis of it, the beginning, was his sense of lacking and his philosophical nature, coupled with a nice bit of Jewish intellectual elitism.

Here's the thing. So I grew up religous. And I was pretty good with my perception of things up until about two and a half years ago. But even before that, long before, I had the same sense of emptiness and futility. It wasn't my dominant feeling, usually. I did get a lot of meaning and fulfillment out of my Judaism. But I was still existentially sad.

I have to say, it had a lot to do with my zionism, and the fact that I made aliyah. I'm not going to say that I blamed America for my existential depression, because I was too logical and realistic for that, even then. But I saw America as a hollow shell, somewhere that there was no reason to be. I would look out the window - any random window, at any random time - and think "Why? Why am I here? Why?" And the answer was always, "Because I'm still a kid and I can't get to Israel yet." Which was, if not satisfactory, at least true.

The reason I don't cite this as my motivation for aliyah - well there are several actually. For one thing, it's far too difficult to explain in ten words or less. Secondly, people consider you an unrealistic idealist and don't take you seriously. And thirdly because I always knew that Israel would not solve all my existential issues. It's just the right place to be. Which does help. I still can't stand being in America or too long, despite the fact that all my family and half my friends are there, for the very same reasons; the vapidity, the shallowness, the pointlessness. Whatever you want to say about Israel, there's a reason to be here, there is always a point to being here, and that's enough. But has it solved my existential depression? The futility and hopelessness of human existence, G-d or no G-d? Not in the slightest.

So this is my new theory: maybe people are just sad. People who can conceive of something vaguely like what infinity might be, or might not be, maybe people who can think will always just be existentially sad, whether or not they have religion. I mean, religion provides a lot that can make you feel better in between times. But does it solve that ultimate ache which is a lack of understanding, that longing for non-futility? Even if you believe.

The answer is, not really in any way at all.

26 Comments:

Blogger Halfnutcase said...

poor miri. I hope you feel better soon, or at least for a little bit.

Does being in isreal help at all?

take care.

I wish I had something better to say.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Lubab No More said...

:(

Good luck finding what you are looking for. :I

7:39 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

First of all, not to be cynical or patronizing- we are young, we are modern and hence we are angsty. It says less about the human condition than about our era.

But I do agree that humans have always had similar thoughts and it's just the modern age that sets them on a pedestal and worships them as angst. But the basic dissatisfaction has probably always been there. Sometimes I feel like it's what makes humans human and intelligent and striving to progress. Only humans can invent (or discover) art and religion and humor and philosophy because of that basic hunger for a something. Not that it makes it pleasant.

Try to suppress and ignore- it helps! ;)

6:18 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

HNC-
it does help some.

LNM-
thanks.

Tobie-
unless you want to categorize seven year old perception as angsty, I'm not sure it's 100% the same thing. But yeah, it's essentially what Kohelet was talking about - hakol hevel. what is that if not endless futility?

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

Was glad to read this in my first visit to spoonicus19 in a while. It kind of echoes a lot of what I've been thinking about lately. And something I always told myself in Israel was, "Being in Israel in itself is enough--I don't always have to be happy here." And it was true. Just being there doesn't solve everything.

I agree with Tobie, though, in that you just have to suppress and ignore sometimes.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Kate! Thanks for stopping by. you're right, being in Israel is enough. or at least better than the alternative.

1:48 PM  
Blogger AgnosticWriter said...

Miri,

I found your comments on Orthoprax's blog intelligent and indpendent minded, so I thought I'd check out your blog.

On this post of yours, I have a few comments:

First, I'm sorry about the existential pain you seem to be describing.

Second, it's been my observation that most humans are not--except for relatively brief passages in their lives--haunted by questions of meaning. Some are, and I believe this has a significant correlation to innate temperament, and of course developmental environment. On the temperament piece: If you're familiar with the MBTI or Keirsey Temperament Sorter system, the meaning-centered people are the NF Idealists. A few of other temperaments are similarly haunted, but only a few for any enduring period of time.

Third, I wonder if you could elaborate on what about being in Israel gives you a sense of meaning (and forgive me if you've written extensively about this in previous posts; I've just discovered your blog). I spent a few years studying in Yeshiva in Israel when I was about your age... Is it the sense of national/ethnic identity? Or historic significance of place? Or something else?

Fourth, if it's any consolation, many who are haunted in youth by a sense of unsatisfied yearning for meaning, do find fulfillment, or at least greater peace, with the passing years.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

ok, so I answered this last night and then my comment got eaten by the interwebs, so here goes take two.

AW-
First, thank you for your compliments and your sympathy. It's always cool picking up new readers. :)

Second, I realize that not everyone is bothered by this stuff.This post was supposed to be referring to the people who are, as they form a very distinctive type.

Third, my feelings about Israel are a little difficult to explain. It's not really an issue of identity so much. It's just a sense of being in the right place, like it's the one piece of the puzzle that actually fits. Like no matter what else I may be screwing up, at least I got the place right, so that's one less thing on my mind to worry about. It's a really peaceful kind of a feeling, actually.

Fourth, I know that many people find peace as they get older, but you have to wonder how much of that is because they finally just chose a system to buy into and got on with it. I mean, when you get right down to it, all things being equal and nothing being empirically provable, why not just pick something and go with it? Plus, later on people have families and communities, and part of human fulfillment is the connection to other people, so you know. That bit helps too.

Anyway, sorry if I've been vague and rambling. Please let me know if I've been unclear.

3:07 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Miri,

Do you know why tooth aches, ear aches, etc.. usually come at night? It's because during the day you are distracted and the other stimuli basically jam the nervous system. Then when you're lying in bed and it's dark and quiet, all of a sudden the pain signals can get through to your brain.

My point? Add more stimuli to your life - then you won't feel the pain as much.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

e-kvetcher-
I appreciate the thought, but I'm living in a foreign country, double-majoring in a foreign language, attempting to find a job, as well as dealing with various other extra-curricular activities, not to mention Israeli beauracracy and insanity. At what point is there enough stimuli?

8:48 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

Miri has to much to do,

I move to clone miri!

:)

9:36 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Every person is different. Perhaps it is your fate to always be angsty. But perhaps what I really meant with my comment is to say - get busy with something which has purpose in your mind. Maybe you are already doing that, I don't know. But there is a big difference between just finding a job, and working at something you truly are obsessed with. A healthy obsession can alleviate a lot of angst.

For me, I am actually in the process of actively changing my outlook on life to be more happy. I've discovered, at thirty seven years of age! that material things truly make me happy. I know, stone me - bad orthodox, bad orthodox. So I have decided to buy stuff that makes me happy. It doesn't have to be a Ferrari, but...

9:50 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>but I'm living in a foreign country

What would Freud say?

9:50 AM  
Blogger AgnosticWriter said...

Miri, you write: "I know that many people find peace as they get older, but you have to wonder how much of that is because they finally just chose a system to buy into and got on with it. I mean, when you get right down to it, all things being equal and nothing being empirically provable, why not just pick something and go with it? Plus, later on people have families and communities, and part of human fulfillment is the connection to other people, so you know. That bit helps too."

Miri, I agree that it's conducive to happiness for most, to forge and deepen connections with other people. And this is a healthy part of human life--not, as I hope you'd agree, a mere distraction from any "essential" human sadness or misery.

Also, I would ask you to consider the possibility that while a particular path may not be empirically proven to be right or wrong for everyone, in any moral or even psychological sense--we do have the legitimate option of deciding upon our highest values (even if we don't claim that they originate in a divine command) and creating a life path consistent with those values. That will feel far more satisfying for the meaning-centered among us, than will simply choosing any path and going with it.

Also, in addition to moral/ethical values, there is the matter of good psychological fit between an individual and the major investments he or she makes in life. If, for example, someone is fascinated by human emotions, motivations, relationships, etc., and is bored by dry facts and numbers, and feels oppressed by an abundance of rules and standard operating procedures--that person would likely be far more happy as a psychotherapist or novelist in a laid-back community, than as an accountant in a rigidly conformist, rules-heavy community.

Moreoever, I think one important reason many people get happier with time is that they become not only more acquainted with the choices and activities and people that help them feel positive, but more confident in their own identity--more self-accepting. And that, of course, has some overlap with having trusted oneself to choose what feels right to one's comfort level and one's values.

On the Israel issue, I'm glad you feel that it's a puzzle piece that fits, and that you got the place part of the equation right. I guess on matters of aesthetics and social climate, and the like, it is often difficult to explain the why, even when we know the what.

In my case, by the way, I enjoyed the freedom of "starting over" in a new country, where I didn't have to feel like an outsider because of my Jewish ethnicity--yet, paradoxically, enjoyed the autonomy of knowing that a language and culture separated me to some degree from the society that surrounded me. Privacy within a friendly crowd, I guess. Also, with the powerful emotional static of parents and family of origin far across the ocean, I found it easier to make progress on understanding and creating my individual identity. The fact that I was still quite religious when I spent time in Israel entered the equation, too, for good and for ill. I haven't gone back even for a visit since I gave up religion; perhaps one of these years I should.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Yoni-
sweet, if slightly creepy. ;)

E-kvetcher-
I know very few college students my age who get to work in fields their obsessed with. Mostly it's stuff like waitressing and babysitting.
I do agree that material things make me happy. Tobie and I once tried to justify this with a theory, but I'm not sure if that theory still holds. ..

AW-
"we do have the legitimate option of deciding upon our highest values (even if we don't claim that they originate in a divine command) and creating a life path consistent with those values. That will feel far more satisfying for the meaning-centered among us, than will simply choosing any path and going with it."

But isn't that essentially what I said, only a lot less cynical and oversimplified?

"Moreoever, I think one important reason many people get happier with time is that they become not only more acquainted with the choices and activities and people that help them feel positive, but more confident in their own identity--more self-accepting."

Yes, assuming that your identity, once figured out, more or less, remains static.

And I have to agree with you analysis of Israel; it's funny how you can belong while being se very seperate. It's one of the most liberating feelings ever.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Theory, shmeory. I like stuff. And (conveniently enough) I'm morally opposed to gashmius bashing.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:16 PM  
Blogger eliana said...

I'd say this post is the closest I've seen to anyone understanding my feelings in growing up and moving to Israel. I've been told to supress and ignore, to quote Tobie, many times, but it doesn't help when I'm lying in bed at 2am in America. Thank God for Aliya and living in Israel.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Eliana,
thank you. I'm glad you appreciated it.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

To address the point of your post- and sorry I'm so late doing that these days- I can't say I entirely understand or empathize with your surety that there is a point in living in Israel. I would imagine that it's quite contingent on the initial existential questioning, whether there is a G-d and if so, is this what He {or she!!} wants you to do.

If you cannot answer the initial question, than from what do you derive that living in America is shallow, pointless and vapid {I find vapid to be a little exaggerated}? Maybe, as you seem to have pointed out, finding the American experience dull is just a product of your overall melancholia. Do you find that Israel itself provides you with anything or is just the change from normal society or being swept into a group of similar idealists?

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Miri said...

Nemo,
I think I already said this but I'll try again. The original desire for Israel was definitely something sociological.I saw Israel, growing up, as the next logical step towards the coming of the geulah, and I guess I looked to it as an escape into something more and better than what I saw before me. As to the rest of it, it's not rational. It's not logical. It's just a feeling. I can explain it in no other way. There is a consistent underlying feeling of pointlessness in America that doesn't seem to be here. For me anyway. I know others who have felt similarly, and beyond that I can give you no support for my claim. It's just a feeling.

As to the pointlessness of America....again it's not something I can give you a logical explanation for. It's just how I saw the world. In America, I would look out the window and there's a road. Why is there a road? For the people to drive on. Where are these people going on this road? To work and to school and to the store. Why? To perpetuate their ultimately more or less futile and purposeless lives. Let me explain that statemement; I DO NOT mean that everyone who drives down the street feels empty and meaningless. I mean that suppose they go to work, and earn a decent living and live in a comfortable house and have a nice family of children who will grow up and go to college to get a job to earn a decent living and live in a comfortable house and raise a nice family, and those kids will grow up to go to college etc. etc.etc., and supposing that they are all perfectly happy and no one ever feels empty or sad or pointless. It's not about the fact that I know or don't know exactly what these people are going to do with themselves. But every time you ask "why?" the only answer is "the perpetuation of life," and when you ask to that "WHY????" there really isn't anything much there.

When I look out of a window in Israel, I don't get that. That is the sole and entire difference between Israel and America existentially. In my personal opinion.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Nemo said...

If it's only a feeling, then there's little to argue. But once again, I don't sense any purpose in living of Israel besides the pronounced religious aspirations. Deficient a such a purpose, it is 100% like living in America, Israel is also just a "perpetuation of life" ...Okay, maybe Israel is a prolonging or struggling for life.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I guess so...but maybe that is the crucial difference. maybe it's the struggle that makes you realize that life is worth living, and Americans just don't get that. I don't know. Have you ever been here?

5:09 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

Yes. Been there twice as a kid, in Yeshiva and coming there again in January. It's a nice place and of course it is Israel after all, but I didn't exactly get sucked in to the whole spirituality there. I figured that if I ever move there later in life I'll require a condo on the beach in Netanya or Hertzylia and not just another hole of an apartment in Rechavia like the rest of the idealists.

5:48 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

most of the idealists can't afford Rechavia. I'm glad you get to come again though. enjoy your trip!

12:44 PM  

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