I found out I was a member of a secret society quite by accident, as a child. The difference between members and non-members hinges around their conception of maturity and comes out at times of adversity.
Non-members aren’t cruel, but they are hard-nosed. Their understanding of adulthood involves a certain abandonment of emotion and especially of sentimentality; when they see suffering or sadness, their response must always make it past the gatekeeper of rationality by which everything is weighed. This is not a bad thing, and in my dotage I’ve even learned how to do it. But the member of the society feels in his or her bone marrow that childlike wonder is the foundation of existence.
To us, the attendant kindness, pure and unfettered, is a great human value. It is not the streetsmart benevolence of the fundraisers or the persistent campaign of the activist; these aim to accomplish too much. It is giving a flower to a homeless man, and feeling bad for the flower. It is stupid kindness.
Now, as is the American custom (and G-d forbid Jews depart from it in any fashion), we would torture our substitute teachers. What made me a society initiate was my near-instant regret. Even though Jews are compassionate people, I alone seemed to find myself sensitive to the teachers’ pain. In fact, I was unusually sensitive to everything, and boy could kids be cruel. It took me a long time to realize it, but I was not alone.
As a kid I would create imaginary adventures and action figure epics while my fellow ten-year-olds were scoring chicks (or whatever normal ten-year-olds do; I don’t know and it’s probably boring). We’d go out to the field in middle school and everyone would play soccer and I’d have my lightsaber or my sword or at least some basic telekinesis and I’d save the world off at the other end of the field (sometimes with the help of a big stick; there was nothing as great as finding a stick the perfect length for a sword or staff).
Thank G-d my father raised us with the knowledge that we’re obdurately weird and that we might as well enjoy it. It didn’t help things that I was an immigrant to the US with a very different culture than my schoolmates. And then there was my accent, a loping South African trying to blend in with the Southern do-si-do.
At some point, the loneliness bothered me, and that’s when I found the Internet. I spent more time in my childhood and adolescence talking to people on the Internet than talking to them in person. It used to be a wild, wild place where normal people wouldn’t bother to venture and where the freaks and geeks ran the asylum. A new, amazing thing was created every hour, for free, for the sake of creation.
My small band of friends and I (shared interests: video games, writing, way overboard humor) would just marvel at it from our idyllic little Zelda and Final Fantasy forums. Here was a world of superheroes, wallflowers or court fools in their daily lives who would come home, throw off their jackets, and become great, ideas would flying like lightning from their fingers. And it was full of sensitive people. Not all of her population was stupid kind, but more of them were than at school. We were finally understood when our bodies and voices and fluids were all torn away and our gossamer souls could meet in rarefied purity, impractical, stupid.
Oh, how much I owe to the society members who took me in! When I was thirteen, one of them introduced me to Coldplay and The White Stripes and one thing led to another and an obsession with music consumed my life. Others welcomed me into their collaborative writing games, in which each person had a character and the characters all went on some grand adventure and you got to write your own parts and OMG was it the coolest thing ever.
It was a virtual home, but it was the best I could hope for. By the time high school came around, all society members in my vicinity were in deep cover, one way or another. Either like me they’d learned to channel their misunderstood tendencies into a quirky demeanor with enough extroversion to put everyone at ease or they’d locked themselves up as tower observers, rich inner lives inaccessible to others.
Through high school, I searched for them. There were hints and whispers. A few guys in the grade above me were genuine nerds and there were friends with each other, and though they never fully let me into their circle, they got me an OiNK membership, which to me was worth the world. The school cobbled together a group of brave freethinkers into a math team, but it turns out that while many members are geeks and nerds, geeks and nerds aren’t necessarily members.
And so, a society teen can feel alone. The difficulty is compounded by others’ insistence that what they know to be true is an immaturity. They’re told that they are not only wrong, but their wrongness is only an outcome of their limited perspective and will one day be outgrown. They aren’t only different; they are inferior. Neither lovers nor fighters see how the terminally sensitive make the world a better place, because of their naivete, their impracticality.
So here’s my appeal: The society members that have survived to adulthood have a certain responsibility to the initiates. We must find them, even if we have to test at random and look the fool for it. We must make their path less lonely.
I was at some shul recently, wrapping my tefillin after davening, and noticed that a Sephardi boy of thirteen or fourteen was trying to sleep across the table from me, his head on his arms, while wearing tefillin (something you’re not supposed to do). I leaned over the back of his head and said in my most conspiratorial Hebrew, “Sunday morning, and you’ve already given up?” I went back to my wrapping. He raised his head and gave me a confused smile before his face slowly collapsed back into the table.
About thirty seconds later I said, “It takes me until at least Monday to give up.” This time, he seemed more amused than confused. I pointed to a book of Tehillim in his Tefillin bag. On the cover was the face of Rav Ovadia Yosef of blessed memory, ex-chief rabbi of Israel. “Is that Rav Ovadia?” I asked. He nodded. “Rav Ovadia will give you the strength to last ‘till Monday.” He smiled. I smiled. I left.
I have a voice inside my head that says this type of thing is stupid and crazy. A voice inside my head says that if he remembers it at all it will be as some kook who harassed him at shul one morning. But I have to wonder: what if he’s like me? What if he feels broken and alone and no one understands him and no one encourages him. What if he won’t dismiss it out of hand, and will remember the moment as one of a stranger’s kindness, and will realize that he too can pass on that gift to others?
Because of that possibility, we sensitive souls who have gathered the strength to brave this night must find those who need it most and confer it upon them. We must give them the chance to survive to our hoary old age.
Originally posted on Hevria.