Shabbos ended three hours earlier but none of us had changed out of our sweaty slacks. My two companions, one a local, the other a visitor like me, wanted to see some sights in the town. I came with. We drove down the road parallel to the sea with the windows rolled down and the cool salt-sprinkled air soothed our every ache.
We made a few stops. First was the dramatic sea wall, where the breakers offered themselves up in spraying plumes and the sweep of the bay and arched sky dwarfed us. We clambered, dress shoes slipping, onto a rocky promontory that jutted from a tiny peninsula of huge houses on million-dollar acres, and felt like a coin in the Atlantic’s palm, unity just a wave away. Eventually we wandered a green park beside a harbor still clear of its summer yachts and cracked jokes about the two high school kids standing and smoking pot near the bathrooms instead of sitting on a bench by the water as G-d intended.
The wind shifted, warm and cool and warm again, and the conversation deepened. In the moon’s wavering reflection, one friend found freedom from the stress and worry of recent days. The other friend shared his desire to build a house there on the water’s edge, to possess the scene forever. But, he mused, it was a false wish. We mustn’t live in the future and miss our current experience. That park and that night were ours for free, and a lifetime of work to “earn” it, constantly living in the future, would leave us in our ocean-view mansions hungering for somewhere else, and so on until death, unsatisfied.
It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.
All things within our experience were born, and to nothing they must return. “Nothing gold can stay,” says the poet. It is inescapable, and, especially to my myth-rattled mind, sad. The problem: Humanity as a whole may last ‘till the end of the story, the stars may watch forever from their midnight balcony, but eternity is beyond the individual’s grasp.
It came to me all at once:
One friend lives with a business mindset and he felt, not wrongly, that he must control his world, must manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of material existence (e.g. Starbucks, Gmail, checkbooks, TAG watches, sheitels) into a structure that will protect him and his family and allow them to thrive in the adverse conditions known euphemistically in Chassidic parlance as “Olam HaZeh” (“This World”). The other friend wanted to own the waterside, to put it behind his own walls, to conquer it. I was depressed by my finitude in the face of G-d’s vast creation.
We’re all addicts.
At first glance, we might think that an addict is controlled by a substance or behavior, that an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol problem. In truth, an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol solution. Alcohol is the alcoholic’s way of controlling his or her life, or in other words, of being his or her own G-d. An addict is a remarkable spiritually sensitive person who, to deal with a painful world, turns to a behavior that relieves his or her pain. As Rabbi Shais Taub writes in his excellent GOD of Our Understanding, “(1) [Addicts] are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.”
The first three of the famous Twelve Steps are to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, to recognize a Higher Power, and to turn one’s will and one’s life over to its care. A parody of those first three steps (also in the book) describes the mindset of an addict: “1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing – that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us. 2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves and the rest of the world was insane. 3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care even though they could not understand us at all.” Rabbi Taub explains at length how the addict needs spiritual care as well as physical and emotional care, and for many, it is only letting go of the need to control their own lives and reliance on a higher power that will heal the root of their addiction and not just its symptoms.
Addiction = Control.
What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?
A sense of the miraculous.
Okay, the water merely lapped the shore; it didn’t split for us. The stars watched silently just as they watched Rome burn and the space shuttle launch. But they made us modern time-slaves feel like the Hebrews on the shore. We felt that there is something we cannot grasp, and we were emancipated by it. The need to be masters subjugated us, and when we saw the sea and the stars that we could not hope to own, we were allowed to escape.
In other words: No matter how many statues topple, no matter how many oppressors fall or pharaohs drown, someone will always rule over us, namely our own egos, our tendency to view everything in terms of ourselves. It gives us a sense of entitlement (and insists we’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex). It asserts that we’ve got it all figured out (unlike all those other saps). It contends that our way is probably the best way (and it always is, after careful factual analysis). Every time we free ourselves from some external limitation, it rubs its hands with glee – more time for me and my plans and dreams.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having an identity. Ego, like everything, is healthy in moderation, and self-destruction in the name of humility might be one of the biggest challenges of our time, much more than the base arrogance common a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, enough self-absorption and self-centeredness and you end up on a beach in the wee hours of the morning, struggling. The solution to our pretensions of mastery and conquest is exposure to some form of the infinite, something that is above nature, beyond time and therefore beyond us. A proof that we are not G-d. A vast sea and uncountable stars. A miracle.
My father told me a story he heard second-hand of an atheist addict who struggled for weeks, perhaps months, with the concept of a higher power that the Twelve Steps demanded. One night he stood outside and looked up at the stars and came to a startling conclusion – “I didn’t make them. I cannot make them. Something else must have.” This thought was the linchpin of his eventual recovery. A quiet hour on a beach could do the same for us all.
The vastness of reality should not depress us but hearten us. What will happen, will happen, and the stars will watch on, forever.
Further reading: GOD of Our Understanding by Rabbi Shais Taub; ספר המאמרים עטר”ת פ’ חיי שרה