A Sojourn of Self and Soul

The Saturday before last was the youth Shabbat at my synagogue. In other words, the majority of the service was led by youth from our congregation, mostly middle- and high-school-aged students, with a few college kids and some of the teachers at our synagogue’s congregational school mixed in. It got me thinking. About a lot of things.

First of course, let me say this: You really feel old when you realize that you remember most of these children when they were a third their current size and had barely a tenth of their present Hebrew-reading skills. On the one hand it was gratifying in that way only known to educators to be able to say I shared a slight moment in their development, a minuscule step in the path that brought them each to leading services Saturday, but on the other hand, it makes me feel tremendously old. It’s like looking down at my own grandchildren: They started so small, and now they’re all grown up.

Worse is that this trail of thinking always evolves further. Soon I was thinking about all the other times I’ve lived through, all those faded fads I supported and all those past professions I’ve participated in. Pokemon, Digimon, Cardcaptor Sakura–some of these names you’ll never know if you’re even a few years younger than me–FernGully, Little Nemo, the Lion King and other classic Disney movies before Pixar (which although fabulous, is not nearly as classic) came around, the Brave Little Toaster, Thomas the Tank Engine, Encyclopedia Brown, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages–all these things that I grew up on, now most of them, gone. It brings a sudden realization to the fact how quickly time changes. We don’t think much of those “when I was your age…” stories that seem so trite, but trust me, children: When I was your age, things were different. And I’m not that much older than you.

Of course, thinking about growing old always leads to thinking about growing older. The average life-expectancy of a man living in the US is only 76. I’m almost 22. That means more than a fourth of my life–or more precisely, 27.8% of my expected lifetime–has already passed me by. I’m more than a fourth dead by that statistic. And, just as I wonder every time I get on the path of wondering this, where have I gotten in the last decade? What have I done with my life?

Adding up all my contributions to society, I seem very insignificant. Weighing this already small figure against the fact it’s taken a fourth of my life to accomplish it, my imprint upon the planet has been practically microscopic. It reminds me of my reasoning for making “micrody” my username on Neopets: Compared to the world, I’m small and insignificant.

Worse even is if I disregard my influence to the world and look solely at my personal achievements, these figures become even more depressing. Sure, I’ve got a 4.0, but all it might do is get me a good job someday. It’ll still be another three to four years at the least before that happens, by which point more than a third of my life will be gone, working towards a moment wherein all I’ve done will finally let me live. I’d say I’ve made lifelong friends, and although I’m sure I have, half my friends graduate this semester, the other half of my friends graduate next semester, and then I still have one more semester before I graduate. Not that it matters, though, because none of us are going to the same place anyways. I know it’s easier to keep in touch now more than ever, but in my experience, friendships formed in person are substantially harder to hold onto over long distances than friendships formed over long distances in the first place. The latter comes pre-equipped with coping devices. The former does not.

Perhaps most depressing is my perpetual lack of significant companionship in my life. I’m an avid believer that love comes in many forms and many shapes and many sizes, and believe me, there’s a lot of love in my life, but there’s a kind of love that’s missing in my life that’s irreplaceable. Family can’t fill this, friends cannot feel this. My youngest loves weren’t loves at all, I’ve learned looking back, and my longest loves barely reached two months before breaking, and all my other interests have ended before ever properly getting the chance to start.

All of which is very encouraging, facing a new friendship that leaves me hoping, but at the same time scares me for what little hope I have left fills me with fear.

And to think all of this came from such a joyous occasion as youth Shabbat!

I did mention, though, that this Saturday made me think about a lot of things. I thought about love, about love in many ways more deeper and much wider than what of love I’ve already said, and I’ve thought about various forms of love. But all of that particular discussion I think is food for another day, another thing to be thankful for.

Prayers, on the other hand, deserve a special mention. When my rabbi invited everyone to come up to say the name of a friend or loved one who was ill, to wish them healing of mind and body, I found myself wanting to go up, but equally as uncertain whether or not I should. The person I had in mind wasn’t particularly ill, but was still undergoing the process of healing, and was certainly someone I wanted to see returned to perfect health. Of course, not many people know I know him, and not many people know of him at all, so I wasn’t sure if I should go. I also wasn’t sure if he would have wanted me to go, because I know some people would rather have me not. So as I was sitting there, debating all of this with myself, quickly taking opposing sides and bantering back and forth, I found I was worrying about whether or not my prayers would be accepted if I did not rise from my seat, walk to the front of the sanctuary, and tell this name to my rabbi to say aloud for everyone to hear.

I was a little stunned for a moment: I was actually worried if God was only listening to my rabbi, if he would only hear me if I went up to an intermediary instead of talking to him directly.

When I realized this, a wave of warmth washed over me and I couldn’t help from grinning. My prayers were genuine no matter where I was, and God would hear them no matter where I was or who spoke them for me, providing my prayers in either case were sincere and meaningful to me. And they were! I whispered his name, letting God know in a single thought (although my wording is a bit ridiculous, since of course God already knows what I know before I know it) how important this man is to me, how special he is, and how much I wish a swift and complete healing for him.

That also brings to mind another issue worth mentioning: Is God all-knowing? And if he is, why doesn’t he just help us before we have to ask for it?

I’ve considered this before, and my answer, at least for a long time, has always been the same. I answer this–like any great Jew would–with an analogy: When I’m in the Math Lab tutoring, I could help any of the students there with anything they’re working on (I have my strengths and weaknesses, but in general this statement is true), and I can usually tell when someone’s struggling. However, I don’t just go up to someone, sit down with them, and show them what to do. Instead I wait for them to come to me. Why? Is it because I’m selfish or lazy? No. It’s because I want them to learn.

The key to learning, or at least one key to learning, is being ready to learn, and being open to the fact that you still have a lot to learn–no matter how much you already know. If someone cannot ask for help, they are not yet ready to receive that help–and if that help is given prematurely, it will be unable to truly help them anyways. So I wait for them to understand their need, so I can help them fulfill it. Sure, sometimes I ask if someone needs help, or I go up or down the aisles making sure everyone’s alright, but doesn’t God do the same thing? When we forget the most that he’s there, he sends us little reminders to make sure we know he’s still out there, ready to help–but only if we ask him.

I ask him for a lot of help these days, a lot of help that I know he just can’t give me.

Allow me to present another analogy: During my physics test the Wednesday before last, I was stumped with one problem. I’d already worked through it twice, but I knew my answer was not coming out correct. I also knew my teacher couldn’t help me, but I got out of my seat and went to ask him anyways. He looked over my work, was silent a moment, and then said, “I can’t tell you what you’re doing wrong. If you think you’ve done everything you can, work on a different problem for a while and then come back to this one.” The advice was generic (I’m almost certain he said the same thing to me last semester, too), but for me it wasn’t his showing me that was helpful. It was simply being able to ask for help that allowed me to keep trying. Going at it alone seemed hopeless, yet once I asked–even though I was denied–something changed inside me. I admitted to myself what I was doing wasn’t working. Even though he really didn’t give me any help at all, simply making that realization and moving for a second, changing my location for an instant and saying something out loud instead of keeping it all in my head, it allowed me to look over my work when I returned to my seat and to see instantly where I was making my mistake.

It’s the same with God, I think. Sometimes we ask for help and he shows us the way. Sometimes we ask for help and he gives us an opportunity to grow and learn what we asked for. And sometimes we ask for help and it’s one of those things that we have to discover on our own, but the act of asking itself reminds us that we’re not alone, shows us that we have support, that someone’s standing right behind us at all times. And sometimes, that’s enough.

I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how much more I’ll accomplish in life before my life, like everyone else’s, will come to an end. But I do know that thinking about these things, taking a few moments every once in a while to take an inventory of ourselves and ask if we’re really going in the direction we want to be going in, helps to remind us what’s most important in our lives. Certainly, my grades matter to me and they mean a lot to me, but sometimes I worry that I’m putting too much weight into a letter on a page when there are people right in front of me that I love and never show that love to sufficiently to let them know how much I love them. And it’s times like these when it helps to remind ourselves that God is present, no matter where we are, and sometimes all it takes to make things better is to just ask for help.

I can’t say a minute of prayer changes the world, but if it can change your mindset, it’s changed enough. And I can’t say love can bend time and curve space, but sometimes it feels like it can.

5 thoughts on “A Sojourn of Self and Soul

  1. Please don’t take such non-specific averages as rules. In some Asian Islands people live to 100 on average in excellent health.

    I heard that is primarily because we Western folk eat fat. That doesn’t just mean junkfood (and since half of America will die of obesity-related illnesses you can probably add 10 years or so to your expected lifespan right now), but mostly milk and cheese.

    I’m Dutch, so I will die of a cardiovascular related illness for sure. It’s either that or eat fish, rich and soja for the rest of my life. I love cheese and milk so much. Life would be empty without them. :(

    Besides, to also make an analogy: a computer game starts as a set of ideas which is used to first program a source. Only after that source is programmed, which is almost half the work, can the artists begin to interpret the original ideas and add them to the source. And it is in that later half that the game is transformed into a full product, its full potential, its full story.

    So don’t worry about 20 years spent (as they were spent well); much of your proudest moments (and I said this) are yet to come.

    • True, it’s only an average, but the truth is that averages come from somewhere: Maybe I’ll be on the high end, or maybe I’ll be an unfortunate accident and never reach half that. No one can really say.

      I think I’ll keep my diet and be happy, but I do like–nay, love–fish. What are rich and soja?

      That’s a good analogy. The best moments often do come nearer the end than the beginning, but that’s no reason not to wonder about where I’ve been now. I typically go through a period like this every few months. I’ll come out of it soon enough, so if you were thinking I’m merely depressed, it’s so not so.

      Not so at all. =)

  2. Hey, Darren!
    I haven’t written on here in AGES, but becaue I’m subscribed to your blog, I read bits and pieces of your posts in my emails, though I rarely go onto your page to see the rest…:( Just letting you know that you sound brilliant from all your math stories, and you are brilliant, which I can see from your phenomenal writing. You really inspire me to be greater. I reallized that manyo f my thoughts are similiar to yours, for example, how time flies and how much life we have left.
    I love your realization about G-d being able to hear you, and your answer as to why G-d doesn’t always “help” us, even though He is ALWAYS helping us, was right on target.
    Here’s a question for you; do you believe that Judaism is the TRUE religion?

    • Thank you so much! Your comments always mean a lot to me, and I really appreciate them. I’m glad my writing can inspire you, and I hope it continues to do the same. That especially means the world to me.

      That’s a good question, and not one I’ve got a quick answer for. I think I’ll set it aside and perhaps answer it in another post when I can write about it.

  3. I know what you mean when you talk about lack of companionship. I have spent years looking for love too, and hopefully my search will come to an end on Sunday. Finding love is very difficult.

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