The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.

13 Comments

  • Lou Levit

    May 8, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Funny, I had the same experience with the same party and the same things happening in it only at a different time and with different people, but from the same school in the same suburbs. It was a bit eerie reading about it as if you somehow managed to capture my experience as well, but I suppose there must be more of us there who felt this way but didn’t show it.

    For me that party was just another thing on my way of searching for my truth (through incessantly bashing my heads into walls trying to find the answer I wanted to no avail).

    Beautiful and captivating. Thank you for sharing.

    • NotAJungle

      May 8, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      I was always surprised at how much this event actually meant to me. It seems so anticlimactic now. But it really shook me up.

      I wonder how many others there were like us…

      • Tuvia

        January 1, 2015 at 1:51 pm

        it’s interesting – one of the ideas someone gave me about psychotherapy was it had as its goal the return to child-like thinking (as opposed to childish.)

        I do see many elements of that in orthodox Judaism – a desire to be childlike. However, I think I have to disagree that the only way to get there is OJ, or chassidish. Because (ironically) the rock-solid conclusion of the religious are (IMO) actually built on childishness.

        (Fundamentalist religion is not alone in thinking it is The Way. Even if it is, how can one know? But the childish part of a person “knows.” In the same way we see repeatedly see children indicate (regarding a playmate’s toy): “if i like it, it’s mine. If it’s broken, it’s not.”

        The child is doing something childish (of course, he cannot know better.) But adults understand that this is classic selfish, childish, way of thinking.

        My fundamental disappointment with religious Jews are their built-up certainty about everything they believe. It has turned me off to belief – because belief to me is a way to stop seeing or talking with different kinds of people. When it comes to hearing and seeing others as human or having legitimate voices – the religious basically place a barbed wire fence between themselves and the other.

        It’s why I can’t really “go there” and join them. It’s all just too cruel and cold and childish (IMO.) I don’t know if Judaism is true or not – I don’t believe humans can be certain – but I certainly find it hard to commit to a life where everyone pretends to have certaintly. And that’s because I can’t join the childish, even if they are searching hard for the child-like, which I value.

        • Tzvi Kilov

          January 13, 2015 at 11:42 am

          You know, I feel that to an extent. I really do. There are many religious folks who can’t abide the idea of “folks just trying to do the best they can,” which to me is so fundamental and humanizing and unifying. All I can say is that I think, with a knowledge of chassidic philosophy that’s continuously expanding and deepening, I really do think chassidus gives one the tools to live life in a genuine, childlike way, even while keeping within the guidelines of halacha. I think one of the major contributions of chassidus in this area is the realization of halacha and the steadfast rules and principles of judaism as just another expression of divinity, a system not existing for its own sake but to unify man with G-d.

  • Lou Levit

    May 8, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Funny, I had the same experience with the same party and the same things happening in it only at a different time and with different people, but from the same school in the same suburbs. It was a bit eerie reading about it as if you somehow managed to capture my experience as well, but I suppose there must be more of us there who felt this way but didn’t show it.

    For me that party was just another thing on my way of searching for my truth (through incessantly bashing my heads into walls trying to find the answer I wanted to no avail).

    Beautiful and captivating. Thank you for sharing.

    • NotAJungle

      May 8, 2014 at 11:24 pm

      I was always surprised at how much this event actually meant to me. It seems so anticlimactic now. But it really shook me up.

      I wonder how many others there were like us…

      • Tuvia

        January 1, 2015 at 6:51 pm

        it’s interesting – one of the ideas someone gave me about psychotherapy was it had as its goal the return to child-like thinking (as opposed to childish.)

        I do see many elements of that in orthodox Judaism – a desire to be childlike. However, I think I have to disagree that the only way to get there is OJ, or chassidish. Because (ironically) the rock-solid conclusion of the religious are (IMO) actually built on childishness.

        (Fundamentalist religion is not alone in thinking it is The Way. Even if it is, how can one know? But the childish part of a person “knows.” In the same way we see repeatedly see children indicate (regarding a playmate’s toy): “if i like it, it’s mine. If it’s broken, it’s not.”

        The child is doing something childish (of course, he cannot know better.) But adults understand that this is classic selfish, childish, way of thinking.

        My fundamental disappointment with religious Jews are their built-up certainty about everything they believe. It has turned me off to belief – because belief to me is a way to stop seeing or talking with different kinds of people. When it comes to hearing and seeing others as human or having legitimate voices – the religious basically place a barbed wire fence between themselves and the other.

        It’s why I can’t really “go there” and join them. It’s all just too cruel and cold and childish (IMO.) I don’t know if Judaism is true or not – I don’t believe humans can be certain – but I certainly find it hard to commit to a life where everyone pretends to have certaintly. And that’s because I can’t join the childish, even if they are searching hard for the child-like, which I value.

        • Tzvi Kilov

          January 13, 2015 at 4:42 pm

          You know, I feel that to an extent. I really do. There are many religious folks who can’t abide the idea of “folks just trying to do the best they can,” which to me is so fundamental and humanizing and unifying. All I can say is that I think, with a knowledge of chassidic philosophy that’s continuously expanding and deepening, I really do think chassidus gives one the tools to live life in a genuine, childlike way, even while keeping within the guidelines of halacha. I think one of the major contributions of chassidus in this area is the realization of halacha and the steadfast rules and principles of judaism as just another expression of divinity, a system not existing for its own sake but to unify man with G-d.

  • gingy

    June 2, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    can you give alittle bit more detail about the screw-ups as you call them? and what you mean when you say that you’re parents rarely showed them. what is a screw-up and how does one show or hide them?

    • NotAJungle

      June 2, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Everyone has a dignified side and a side that wants to just roll around in the mud. The screw up is the latter, and how it’s concealed is obvious: by living with dignity.

  • gingy

    June 3, 2014 at 12:49 am

    can you give alittle bit more detail about the screw-ups as you call them? and what you mean when you say that you’re parents rarely showed them. what is a screw-up and how does one show or hide them?

    • NotAJungle

      June 3, 2014 at 1:10 am

      Everyone has a dignified side and a side that wants to just roll around in the mud. The screw up is the latter, and how it’s concealed is obvious: by living with dignity. My parents rarely swore or spoke badly about other people to us or spoke publicly about private matters, for example

  • SF

    April 27, 2016 at 1:46 am

    *deep breath*

    Word.