Nicholas Kristof, bless his heart, writes columns that are sometimes very difficult to read. Nearly every column I read leaves me feeling I’ve been punched in the chest and makes me want to throw up.
It’s a good thing, what he does–exposing the world’s evils and forcing us to confront the existence of lives less privileged than our own– but other than feeling sick, I am not spurred to action, only to indignation, anger, incomprehension. Instead, I turn it over and over in my mind, try to make sense of the sickness that exists in the world. As a human being, I have a very hard time wrapping my head around the idea that one human being could treat another like garbage. I’m not naive, I know it happens but I just cannot make intellectual and emotional sense of it. Maybe because there is no sense to it.
Despite not being very religious, I do grapple with issues of faith and belief, mostly in the context of guilt and envy. I understand and support completely the need for humans to have some sort of belief system–everyday belief in everyday practice. (Extremists are another issue entirely). When you can’t make sense of something, when there is no rational or scientific explanation that will quiet your nerves, there is solace in the words of faith. If you, as an individual, cannot come to terms with evil or injustice or some perceived wrong, there is emotional comfort in believing that someday, somehow, somewhere, evil will get its due. You can call it punishment from God, you can call it Karma, whatever you want but when you feel helpless and confused, it’s nice to be able take comfort and assurance from a faith-believing community.
I envy people that have that. I grew up in a conservative Jewish household. I went to Hebrew school, I had a bat mitzvah but there was very little actual ritual and practice of belief in my home on a day to day basis. We went to temple as a family on the holidays, we celebrated Chanukah, we made a seder but there was no daily or weekly practice. I know my parents believe in God and I’m fairly confident that my siblings believe in some sort of higher being, God or otherwise. My father and stepmother stepped up their practice and observance when I was older, on my way out the door to college. I enjoy having Shabbat dinner with them when I’m home for visits, and I like going to temple with them on Saturday mornings but it’s not for religious reasons. When I go to temple, I have the space and quietude to meditate. My mind wanders, I get things sorted out, sometimes something in the text gives me pause and provides context for an issue that I’m dealing with in my life.
I don’t think I would ever be comfortable with saying “I do this because it’s what the bible says,” but I do think that the bible is full of words of wisdom that I can take to heart, that I can use to figure out how I feel and what I want to do about those feelings. Does that make sense at all? To be sure, there are many ideas in the bible that are in direct conflict with my own value system but when it comes to interpersonal relationships– marriage, friendships, family– the bible provides a handy reminder that whatever issues I have, they are not new. They are literally as old as the ages. And we’re still here, we’re still standing. That counts for something, I think.
So, when I read about child sex slaves and my stomach turns and my chest starts pounding, what do I do? Buy a ticket to Cambodia, snatch up every single girl and bring them home with me? I’m not going to say it’s impossible but let’s settle on unrealistic. So,what’s next? Throw money at it? Money that I don’t really have? Every cause needs money…how could I possibly choose? How could I say that child sex slaves in Cambodia need more help than virgins being raped in Africa by men who want to cure themselves of AIDS or some other evil that hurts my brain and heart to think about?
The truth is, as much as it pains me to admit it, that while I feel very, very, very bad about all the garbage that goes on in the world, I also do not feel empowered to do anything about it, I do not feel motivated to take action. I am stunted in that regard. This is why, I think, people turn to the Book. There is only so much your intellectual mind can handle, only so much that your feeling heart can hold, that you have to release some of the angst. Getting a “there, there, it’s okay” doesn’t solve any major problems but it’s soothing and can lift considerably an emotional burden that is too heavy to carry for long.
It seems like a cop-out, doesn’t it? An easy and clean way to relinquish your responsibility to humanity, maybe. But let’s be real. I’ve got my own problems. They might not be problems on a Kristof scale but they are problems all the same. We all have our causes that for one reason or another speak to us, compelling us to devote time and energy to the cause. So, I’m fine with letting someone else take up the cause of child sex slavery (and every other single evil out there) while I’m over here voting with my feet to protest the sorry state of our society (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post!). But just because I’ve decided not to take up Kristof’s cause personally doesn’t mean that I don’t think about it, that I don’t try to wrap my head around it. I walk around feeling literally sick to my stomach. And all I can do is take comfort in the notion that these evil, evil people will get their due, one way or another. I can take comfort in knowing that someone, somewhere has taken up the cause for these girls.
The older I get, the more open I am to practicing my faith. I’ve come to recognize that it can help satisfy my emotional neuroses. Truthfully, it makes me feel self-conscious to admit to any kind of religious feeling. Also, it is not something that Henry and I can share. From the very beginning of our relationship, I made it clear (and Henry consented) that I wanted the girls to be raised Jewish, that I expected them to go to Hebrew school but at the time, it was about culture, not spirituality. I feel like I’m having a bit of a spiritual awakening as of late and feeling the urge to find the space for meditation on a more regular basis. The urge is selfish. I’m not feeling the need to drag everyone to temple with me or anything. I just want that space to be left alone to think and the sanctuary of a synagogue is what I know, where I feel comfortable. I’ve tried yoga, I’ve tried just meditating in my house. I don’t get the same feeling as I do when I close my eyes and hear the chanting of Hebrew. I am fully and totally accepting of Henry’s aversion to organized religion. I wouldn’t have married him if it mattered to me. But am I betraying him and us if I allow this spiritual side to emerge? I mean, it’s always been there, Henry knows I have some level of spiritual belief but practice is another story altogether.
I’ve always struggled with my feelings on religion and spirituality, but at some point in my mid-twenties, it became easier to just push it out of my mind and stop dealing with it. Coincidentally (or not), this back-burnering of my spiritual quest happened around the same time that I was with an ex-boyfriend whose blatant hypocrisy in his practice of Judaism was a real turn-off. I mean, really, practice your religion however you want but don’t pontificate then turn around and do the opposite. Come on now. But now that I’m a…. grown-up (!???!), I recognize the need for some spiritual guidance and practice in my life to help me deal with this…grown-uppy (again, !???!) stage that my life has entered.
I think I need to stop here for a minute and figure out how I got from feeling bad about child sex slaves in Cambodia to my own spiritual quest. It’s actually pretty simple– I’m a neurotic person and the older I get, the more neurotic I get. I am increasingly unable to put aside my feelings about whatever is going on in the world. I’m angry, frustrated and helpless. And I’m so very rarely alone that I never get a chance to sort through all my feelings and let go of them. Instead, they keep me up at night. As a mother, I find it impossible not to take it to heart. I mean, I was a sensitive and emotional person before I had my children. Now? Forget about it. I’m a lost cause. To rescue myself, I need a spiritual space. Release takes a lot of different forms and my form is to be able to sit with my thoughts, take in what’s going on around me and absorb energy from the people around me also engaged in the same spiritual act, more or less.
I think is the longest blog post I have ever written. I hope it makes sense. It feels a little all over the place but that pretty much sums up my emotional state at the moment.