Some days it’s just hard to find someone who understands

The Facefriend suggested “an article I might like.” It’s been sending me bunches of those lately. 75% are “articles” that aggregate themed responses from places like twitter and reddit with subjects like “People share stories of worst customer service” or “25 times Bridezilla struck,” things like that, whatever.

Today they hit me with this one:

“Mom Asks What Our Kids Names Would Be If They Were Named After WHY We Had Them, Twitter Delivers Hilarious Responses.”
The previews they showed were things like “Marital Problems, stop hitting your brother, Broken Condom; I’m trying to put Hennessy down for a nap!”

I recognize that it’s an attempt at humor. But it’s never been something I find funny. I’m not going to yuk other people’s good times, but even seeing that headline made me feel sad. And I’m not going to pretend it didn’t. I feel badly even writing this blog about it, because I don’t mind other people poking good naturedly at their past selves. My past self doesn’t remember that period with much humor. And even thinking about people joyously conceiving is hard for me to imagine, because it’s so outside the realm of my experience. I’ve always wanted to be a parent and I’ve always wanted 2+ children. It never occurred to me that would be anything but interesting because all the stories in my family are “we wanted a kid, so we had one.” Until I was in college, no one in my family struggled at all with infertility. And in college, of course, I was a) invincible and b) more interested in not being pregnant than in getting pregnant. So I admit, my aunt’s struggle with infertility made an impression, a strong one, and she is the one who is the most like me in my family, so it should have been a warning sign, but it wasn’t. Because, see a), I was invincible and nothing was ever going to go wrong in my life. Nothing prepares you for when that stop being true.

So no, add that to the list of games I don’t play along with gender reveals, cutsie pregnancy announcements, and life tweeting my birth story annually. (If you do these things, I’m not necessarily judging you. Just choosing not to do them personally, which is not the same thing.)

Thinking about this meme

I saw this meme:

And I have thoughts. Because I have a few friends periodically express suicidal thoughts and part of their methodology is to demand that their friends give them reasons to live. And I do my best, but honestly, I can’t tell other people what they need to do to live. And usually my reasons are shot down as “You don’t know what it’s like,” and “You say that all the time. (because it’s still a valid reason, dumbass.), or they crazy conditions, like “You can’t say any reason you’ve ever said before,” “Do not quote any sources I haven’t read,” and “It can’t be things like, it would make your life easier if I continued to live,” (It would, though.) Like, fuck me, what’s the rubric that gets me the fuck out of this conversation with everyone in the same state of life and relative sanity that they started with?

So about this meme, can we admit that maybe their friends DO NOT have the training to handle it? For non-professionals, it can be really hard to tell the difference between “I’m sad and I’m venting and I need to be heard” and “I am about to drop myself off a cliff.”. And if we fuck it up in either direction, the consequences are devastating.

It’s a really hard burden to lay on a friend. Yes, people who express suicidal tendencies deserve a space to be heard, but their friends who create that space need some grace too.

For my part, I have come to the assumption that if someone is talking to me, they’re doing it because they do not wish to be dead. Because I have felt suicidal once, and my response was not to talk to people. My response was to go stand by a lake, look in and imagine drowning in it. And I played the scenario all the way out, trying to figure out how far out into the lake I would have to go such that I couldn’t swim back and would die try trying to get back to shore. I imagined how hard my body would fight my death. And I decided that if my body was willing to to fight so hard to live, didn’t my mind owe my body the same respect. And that was the last time I, in any capacity, contemplated suicide. So in my limited experience, people who want to be dead, go out and find death. They don’t find a person to talk to. They don’t want to wait for the voice of reason. They don’t attempt suicide. They succeed at it.

So I start from the assumption that if we’re having this conversation, we all want to live; even if living is difficult. And maybe that’s sufficient for the meme. But…damn, I understand those people who want to call an authority, a professional, an adultier adult who is adulting at a higher level who might be able to actually help the person with the suicidal thoughts. I can understand why someone hearing a friend talk about suicide would be scared enough to make that call. Because even though I remind myself that they are calling me as an alternative to suicide, because they do not wish to be dead; they sound legit sincere in their desire to be dead. And the idea that I’m the thread holding them back from death, makes me feel it’s a very slender thread indeed. I have to remind myself that even if they make it seem like I’m the one thing holding them back and that anything I can say would save or kill them, that’s not not reality. The reality is that they are not going to kill themselves and the way I’m helping is simply by holding that space for them and valuing them as people. Letting them talk and listen. And inserting remarks periodically that full into their category of permitted remarks. (Although it’s as likely as not, they will critique my side of the conversation after the suicidal impulses have passed and tell me all the things I said wrong so I can improve my technique for next time. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, is that there’s nearly always a next time.) I know just being there and not reporting is generally speaking, the correct approach. But speaking as someone who is regularly a safe space, it’s damn difficult.

Ifgod and the Unworthy

I co-ran a room on Clubhouse today for discussion of infertility in religious spaces where there is so much emphasis on families and togetherness. In that space, I talked about a bunch of the things both positive and negative that people have said to me.

But a few things I didn’t talk about because they weren’t really part of the conversation. But I’ve talked about them here before, I think, and I think I’ll mention them again today.

The first is “If G-d wanted you to have children…”

and the second is “Maybe you’re not ready/worthy of children…”

and to me these are basically the same thing. They’re manifestations of the Just World Fallacy. They’re the idea that the fertiles cling to that because they have been blessed with children, they deserve to be blessed with children. Because they have received a blessing, they are worthy of blessing and conversely, if you did not receive that blessing, you are unworthy of it.

I know it for what it is, a way to feel less guilty (there’s no reason to feel guilty because you were able to have children) and worth and absolved in a way. But it’s also a way to justify the world. Good people get reward. Bad people are punished. The Bible specifically says that IF you follow my commandments, I will reward you with many things, including children. Therefore, people who aren’t rewarded, people who are don’t have all the things, don’t have them because they don’t deserve them.

This is Prosperity Gospel. And it’s bullshit. I’ve learned polite words for responses to those people, but in my heart, you know I’m seeing that “child of 2, zip tied and called idiot.” headline from a number of years ago. No. Not all parents deserve their children. Not all non-parents don’t deserve children. This is wrong and broken logic.

And the presume to know G-d’s plan based on only what our eyes can see and experience is the height of idolatry, because we’re setting ourselves up in a place of judgement where we have no business being; elevating our opinions beyond our understanding.

When the bag tears the shoulders get a rest

Today’s African Proverb (video here), “When the bag tears, the shoulder gets a rest.” You don’t realize how much you’re carrying until something falls was one of the ideas that someone else brought. Maybe you’re so used to operating under the pressure that you can’t recognize that you need a break.

My thought was about the transformative nature of perspective. You can focus on the hole in the bag and what you’ve lost, or you can focus on the benefit of the lightening of the load. This echos the philosophy of Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam Zu, who would always say, “Gam zu la’tova.” This is also for the best.

Or Rabbi Friedman’s story of his grandfather who used to be “oy vay’s mir nicht.” instead of “oy vay” (or “or vay’s mir) which roughly translates to “oh my goodness, NOT” where again the focus shifts perspective from viewing the negative to viewing the positives.

It’s so easy to get stuck in our negatives. Yesterday I had a pretty triggering day on the infertility front for a lot of varied and different reasons. But while I don’t have a baby or a pregnancy, I do have a friend that I can discuss this things with. Someone who is going through similar things, experienced the same triggers I did and so even though I feel like my bag is broken, my shoulders feel lighter because I’ve been able to share the burden I carry. And hopefully she feels the same.

One of my favorite quotes from Sports Night is where Dana is fretting about hosting her family for Thanksgiving:

Jeremy: You’re underestimating your mother. You get to see your family, what, twice a year? Savor it. Your mother’s gonna love you whether or not you screw up the turkey.
Dana: My mother’s gonna annoy me whether or not I screw up the turkey.
Jeremy: Which leads us to the conclusion that your mother loves you, even though she annoys you, and it’s Thanksgiving, so which do you wanna focus on?

And that perspective shift (something I try to keep focus on when I see my mother, who can be somewhat challenging at times), that moment of choice. Which do you want to focus on? What’s lost or what’s gained? We have the choice to search (and it’s a really difficult search sometimes) to find that moment of looking around to see in each misfortune, “What have I gained from this?”

It’s not lost on me, btw, that in English, tear and tear are spelled the same. We can accept the tear in the bag and find the benefit, or we can cry about it.

Psalm 27 – Learned with non-experts

Since Rabbi Jess was unable to teach us Psalm 27 in Elul, the month in which Jews add this Psalm to their daily prayer service, a few people got together to create a room to discuss the Psalm in a group.

It was hard to live blog it, but I will do my best to recreate it from memory.

We addressed the topic of urgency. The Psalmist is speaking from a place of immediacy. They desired to be heard, seen, protected, uplifted, and above all, drawn near to G-d with all haste. The Psalmist has no time to waste. The moment is now and must be seized and acted upon. Yesterday in one of my Clubhouse classes, the Rabbi leading the class said, “Rosh Hashana is in less than a week. It seems like it was a long way off and now it’s here!” And that’s like the month of Elul. It seems like a long time, a whole month of preparation in which we say this Psalm, but it’s an eyeblink and then it’s over and we stand before the Heavenly throne on Rosh Hashana. This is why the Psalmist has no time to waste. This is why we must act now.

The imagery of the early verses of the Psalm underscore this imagery. The enemy wishes to devour our flesh now. The camps encompass us now, they encroach and wish to overrun us. The language screams with urgency.

But what do we want? What is the deepest desire of our heart? It’s You, Hashem. All we want is to be with you and to dwell in our house. All of that other stuff is distraction from our only desire which is to bask in Your presence. On Rosh Hashana, we take this time to separate ourselves from the world for the sole purpose of basking in the presence of the L-rd. It can be hard, sometimes amidst all the chatter, and the noise and tumult of the synagogue to find the sanctuary that we seek and the presence that we seek, but finding that, fulfilling the desire of our heart, is the ultimate goal of the holiday.

That was just two of the ideas that came up, but it’s all I can remember right now because my brain had the tired. More later as I remember it.

Water that has been begged for does not always quench the thirst

Today’s African proverb (Video here)was profound and hard-hitting today. I often feel like I’m in the position of begging for what I need. Many of the speakers had a totally different perspective on what that meant, but all I heard was the countless number of times I’ve asked for help, and then begged for help and the help was either not forthcoming at all or given begrudgingly.

Since Yom Kippur is coming up, I’ll tie it in to the Al Cheyt, the Hebrew confessional. One of the sins we confess is “The sin that we sinned through legs that run to do evil,” and I read a commentary on this that says our legs run to do evil, but they’re not as quick to run to do Mitzvot. I think that’s what this proverb is cautioning us against. That we be aware when we are making people beg us to help them meet their basic needs. That we offer before they have a chance to beg. That we run when they first ask and not wait until the situation is so dire that they have to beg. That we apply the same diligence, speed, and devotion to helping others meet their needs that we apply to meeting our own desires.

Shana Tova. Happy New Year.

The Smartest Person in the Room

I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. This is not a complaint. This is reality. It sounds like a complaint, but only when taken out of context. Here’s some context to explain it.

I am from a family of very smart people. In my immediate family, I’m the village idiot, because they are all very smart people. That’s not to say they aren’t flawed; because they’re human, but they’re very smart humans. I am also a smart, maybe even a very smart human sometimes, but what’s important to understand here is that all my life I have been surrounded by people who are smarter than me.

Growing up, my family was smarter than me. (I’m the youngest, so that is a contributing factor, although my oldest cousin may be the stupidest person I know, so I’m aware that’s not a factor in intelligence, more in experience and knowledge) As I gravitated towards friendships, I, whether intentionally or not, gravitated towards intelligent people, people who were smarter than me. When I watched Sports Night and I heard Isaac Jaffe say this line, it resonated hard with me and because I’d always done it and never really known why it was the right thing do, “If you’re stupid surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who think differently than you do. I’m an awfully smart man…” and as a smart person, I believe in surrounding myself with smart people.

As an adult, I married one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. As a result I’m rarely the smartest one in the house. (although it happens sometimes.) His best friend, I’m recently reminded is also a genius, although the two of them are so lazy and subtle about it, sometimes its easy to forget how damn smart they are. My child is fixing to be the same way. Hopefully not as lazy, but definitely smart and subtle.

So I continue to be the stupidest person in the room and it’s my own fault because I’ve filled my room with the smartest people I can find. And I’m okay with that, because I’d rather live as Pirkei Avot says (4:20) being the tail of the lion than the head of the fox.

Why I’m rambling about this in particular today though is because I’ve heard quite a lot of “Of course your kid is intelligent. Look at the kid’s parents.” and while I can look at the father and be like, “well, that” and look at the influences I’ve surrounded the kid with, and be like, “and of course, all that.” I have a hard time looking at myself the same way. I’m just middling smart. Not genius level. I think the kid has the potential to be genius. Unlocking the kid’s passions and motivations is going to be our bigger challenge. It’s not always easy for the smart ones to find their happiness.

Other days the gru eats you

I know that my depression today is due in large part to a migraine. Intellectually, I know this. But damn, I feel like living is way too much effort and energy. I feel like my “to do” list is growing and I just want to lose myself in whatever it is I do that takes me out of my life.

I want to read books until I’m sick of words. I want to spend money like a trust fund baby loose in a luxury hotel. I want, I want, I want…anything but this moment. Anything but this excruciatingly long, unfathomable, unendurable moment. Anything but a lifetime of emptiness stretching before me. Anything but the isolation (imaginary) and loneliness (fleeting) that seems to stretch before me forever. I know, in my heart, it’s the pain talking. But damn, it talks loudly and aches through every vulnerable crack in my being.

Reminder: Feelings are not reality. This thing I imagine is my life is not reality. This is your chronic illness speaking. And it’s a big ole fat liar. Please remember that.

Misfortune and Wisdom

So I was at the African Proverbs room on clubhouse again (youtube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOvSvZZ5ev8) and the proverb today was “One of causes others misfortune also teaches them wisdom.”

I had a couple of thoughts on that. First, I heard an echo of the saying about King David quoted in Pirkei Avot, “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99). And the larger point that Ben Zoma brings, “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). And as the Chofetz Chaim brings, every person we encounter is to meant to teach us about ourselves.

The other thought I had is from the a commentary on Exodus. I don’t remember which commentary, I’m sorry. It was one I studied in high school and have never forgotten. It asked, why was the punishment for the Egyptians so harsh. This wasn’t their choice really. G-d said, “know of a certain that your children will be enslaved in a land that is not theirs…” and really, it was the Pharaoh’s decree that enslaved them. Because, the commentary explained, they enjoyed it. They took pleasure in it and they intensified it beyond the minimum required to satisfy the decree of G-d. When you look at pictures of NAZI guards and you see them smiling while their victims suffer ,when you hear accounts of tortures, when you look at picture of the atrocities committed around the world, like, the tortures at Abu Ghraib; what do you see? You see the smiles on the face of the tortures. You see the pleasure they have in their cruelty and their lack of humanity, lack of empathy, lack of understanding, lack of decency. And when I look at this proverb, I am reminded of that.

Because there are many different ways to cause people misfortune. All of our misfortunes can help us improve. But from the perspective of those who cause misfortune, motivation and intensity matter. Let me give an example of someone who causes misfortune for the best of reasons from fiction. Professor Dumbledore asks Snape to kill him to preserve Draco’s soul from harm.

What about my soul, Snape asks.

And Dumbledore replies, “You alone know whether it was harm your soul to help and old man avoid pain and humiliation.” (The Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling.)

What were the educational consequences of this misfortune that was perpetrated. They were manifold. Snape was accepted 100% as a loyal death eater by all observers, allowing him to continue to undermine V and also put himself in the position to become headmaster; he was ostracized from the existing professors at Hogwarts; creating an even greater personal isolation for him. Harry as a witness became even more determined to punish both Snape and V, strengthening his character and his resolve. I bring this example, by contrast to the previous examples, because this is a case where the person deliberately chose to inflict misfortune because it was part of a greater scheme. And in this choice, he minimized the amount of pain he was inflicting on others. Although ironically, he probably caused himself great personal pain and anguish, killing off the one person who really knew him, the closest thing he had to a friend. Contrast that to a rapist, who not only inflicts misfortune, but does it in a way to gratify personal desires. While the victim of the misfortune may indeed gain wisdom; the wisdom gained by the victim does not absolve the misfortune creator in any way.

Love and Coffee

I was listening in on Daily African Proverbs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2Tndobjhf0) and today’s proverb was “Coffee and Love taste best when hot.” an Ethiopian proverb and something really resonated with me. The idea of coffee as connection and love as connection.

I feel like I can break this proverb down word by word and come up with different ideas based on how important each word is.

First I want to talk about “taste.” Let’s think about this word and what it means. It’s a perception and a sensation available only to the taster. It doesn’t consider what is being tasted. It’s very personal. If I taste something and I like it, that’s very personal and perceptual to me. I like it. It centers me as the person who needs to be pleased. But the value of the coffee, of the love, isn’t restricted only to the taste to me. It had value of its own. Coffee has a price and a cost and benefits that go beyond the taste. Love has benefits beyond my immediate perception of it and the feeling of it on my tongue at any particular moment. It tastes sweet when it’s hot on my tongue. But love can also taste bittersweet, like when there’s distance between us. Coffee can also taste good cold. Someone in the group also mentioned a proverb, “A bad day with coffee is better than a good day without coffee.” I can’t imagine that, but that’s definitely a truism with love. Love makes a bad day better and a good day spectacular. And a good day without love, is still a good day, but might feel a little empty. If you focus only on finding the perfect taste and temperature of love, I think you miss out on some of the beauty of love. (and you might miss out on iced coffee entirely.)

But I was also thinking of a friend who invites everyone who has questions about Judaism to meet him for “coffee” and a one-on-one chat. The coffee is a vehicle for connection to others. Just as love is a method of connection to others. And looked at in that light, whatever your coffee is, it’s more than that. Because it’s a bridge from your isolation to another person. So too with love’ bridging the distance between us and connecting us.

Another idea that someone brought is that the heat is your passion. And what makes coffee and love great? It’s when you bring the heat of your passion and your interest into the situation. Hot coffee is hot because you invest of your time and energy to make it hot. And it’s that investment that truly makes the coffee delicious. And when you bring your passion and your interest and your investment to your relationships, you make them hot and bring out the truest flavor of your love.

When I first heard the proverb, I thought, how can I ever relate to this idea? It seems so shallow and uninteresting. But listening to other people share their ideas, it blossomed into so much more. Truly, listening to others, loving what others can bring to the table, brings the heat and improves the taste of the coffee.