Friday, September 18, 2009

My Lost Spark: Self-Sacrific Lost and Desired

There are two kinds of people in life, especially in the army: those who look out for their own needs and then consider their work done and those who look to assist the community after their personal needs are satisfied. You have to know, to decide, which kind of person you will be.

Failure taught me these words. I had disappointed Dalia, the volunteer coordinator of my garin, brushing off her unspoken request to sweep the common room after I finished cleaning my own space. She saw me a few minutes later and the look in her eyes conveyed whatever disappointment was absent from her verbal reprimand.

Perhaps the disappointment I saw was merely a reflection of my own inner turmoil. After all, the eyes are the windows to the soul. A few days earlier, on Rosh Hashana afternoon, I had reread the Letters of Yoni Netanyahu. Yoni's final letter, addressed to his girlfriend shortly before his death in the daring hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, describes an inner crisis that I have grappled with for the last few years. On June 29 1976 Yoni writes,

I find myself at a critical stage in my life, facing a profound inner crisis that has been disturbing my whole frame of reference for a long time…I am tired most of the time, but that’s only part of the problem—I have lost the spark that is so vital for any achievement, the spark of creative joy, of self-renewal, of reawakening.

My own spark slipped from my grasp in my second year in university, after a series of experiences cracked the drive and vigor that had become second nature in high school and yeshiva in Israel. The Sammy that started university in 2005 would never have failed to look out for communal needs. Years of exposure and hands-on leadership experience at summer camps, Jewish high school and yeshiva in Israel had provided me with the background, confidence and sense of responsibility to better my Jewish community at university. I was a whirlwind of sensitivity and drive during my first two years in college, organizing, promoting, problem-solving...there was no end. Most nights I turned-in after two AM, having only put aside community tasks at ten o'clock for several hours of arduous Chinese and other homework assignments.

I never cracked. There was no magical morning, no moment when I walked into the Hillel building and announced I was done putting others ahead of myself. I lost my spark from a convergence of events, some so beautiful that I still feel a tug at my throat when the memories come to mind. Most of these events, of course, were far from pretty, and the tar they left on my activist soul has been difficult to remove till today.

When I stepped away from a leadership position in the Jewish community in my final year of university, my friends and family figured stress, frustration and alienation had pushed me over the edge. They were not too far off the mark. The longer and the more I gave to the community, the less I felt that my work was either appreciated or, more critically, inspiring my peers to elevate our community. What I did feel was growing alienation, a reality captured by a fellow student who described my role in the Jewish community as a jukebox, the robotic programmer who ensured there was always music but never joined the gang dancing to the tunes. Leadership can be a very lonely place, especially when the sense of responsibility one feels so deeply is shared by few of your peers. The responsibility I felt and my activities in response led me to form very few human relationships during my first two years in university. Few friends and disappointment with my work make for a potent brew, particularly in the stressful academic environment that is Johns Hopkins. And so the charge that I retreated from the Jewish community due to frustration is fair. Up to a point.

My disenchantment culminated at the end of my sophomore year when I organized an exhibit in memory of a friend who was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War. Thanks to the selfless contributions of friends and volunteers, the exhibit was displayed to great effect at some two dozen campuses and community centers around the world. I hoped that my fellow student leaders at Hopkins would assist me in hosting the exhibit on campus. At the very least I looked forward to my own student community displaying a similar level of interest to the impressive response audiences around the world had showed in the exhibit. In the end neither my hopes nor expectations were fulfilled. With a few laudable exceptions, no one in the community made the slightest effort to assist or even view the exhibit. Instead the message was sent, all the louder by the communal absence, that no one cared.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. That same spring term also saw me grappling with the teachings of two scholars, two giants of twentieth century Judaism, Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Soloveitchik's philosophical writings are consumed by the existential loneliness that religious man confronts in modern society. Loneliness is also a motif in Heschel's discussion of the prophetic individual, although the key characteristic of Heschel's ideal figure is an overwhelming concern with God's concern for mankind. "The world," Heschel writes, "is at ease and asleep [and only] the prophet feels the blast from heaven… [his] word is a scream in the night."

The ideal figures described so beautifully by Soloveitchik and Heschel left me inspired. But I was also shaken, stunned by how closely their words captured my travails on behalf of my student community. However flattering it may have been to find my predicament akin to the challenges faced by Soloveitchik's man of faith and Heschel's prophet, the respite both figures find in either companionship or divine faith was beyond my ken.

When the spring semester ended I returned home to put my interpretation of Soloveitchik and Heschel to paper. In July a close friend was to marry and I wished to include an essay on the two scholars in the journal of Jewish thought his friends were creating (surprise!) for his wedding. For five nights I was a ghost in my home, spending the nights wrestling with the words of Soloveitchik and Heschel as my reflection gazed back at me from the luminous computer screen. I thought. I stared. And when my paper, "In Search of Man: The Ideal Jew of Rabbis A.J. Heschel and J.B. Soloveitchik," was finished I departed for China, flying to the other side of the world for the very first time with a score of questions still ringing in my head.

My summer in China provided few answers. But it did leave me with a different attitude, no longer driven to marshal the same level of enthusiasm and creativity for communal work. Ironically the impetuous for my new attitude came through the close friendship I developed with An Kaxin, another student on my summer language program. My relationship with An Kaxin upset my previous prioritizing of communal needs ahead of personal desires.

An Kaxin's influence was also central in my growing sympathy for the Chinese school of thought that suggests man must subsume his self within nature, accepting and embracing the flow of life. This philosophy was one among many that I had studied over the past spring term in a course on ancient Chinese thought. Initially Confucianism, with its hallowed injunctions on the merits of responsibility and self-sacrifice, appealed to me more than the selfish themes I found in Daoism. I grew more attuned to Daoist themes, however, over the summer in China. The following story, one of my favorite stories from the Daoist sage Zhuangzi, richly captures the challenge Daoist themes pose to my prior attachment to tenets of self-sacrifice and communal responsibility.

Zhuangzi was angling by the River Pu when two officials from the Kingdom of Chu approached. "Our Lord invites you to become his high official and run the kingdom," the men told Zhuangzi. Without looking up from his pole, Zhuangzi remarked, "I have heard that in the Kingdom of Chu there is a sacred turtle. It has been dead three thousand years and the king of Chu keeps it in a silken box, stored in the ancestral hall. Now would that turtle rather have its bones treasured in death or be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?" "It would rather be alive and drag its tail in the mud," replied the officials. "Go then," intoned Zhuangzi, "And leave me to drag my tail in the mud as well."

When Dalia looked me in the eye and asked what kind of person I am, self-centered or self-sacrificing, I blinked and thought of the last few years and the lessons from Johns Hopkins, Soloveitchik, Heschel, An Kaxin, Zhuangzi and Yoni Netanyahu. And then I opened my eyes and told her the truth: I want to rekindle the drive and sensitivity from my past. I need to believe that I can balance that energy with the sobering lessons I learned in university. I want and I need. But who am I today? Perhaps that is another question I expect my army service to help resolve.

1 comment:

  1. My Friend Sammy,

    I think the most encouraging news one can receive, no matter from whom, is the kind in which one realizes he is in company. For the lonely social butterfly, this company is measured by a proximity of human bodies. For the lonely thinker (a class in which I now place you, respectfully), company is the proximity of human minds. Perhaps you don't need me to tell you this - you already know that philosophers, amateur thinkers, and river anglers have also devoted some thought to this question of personal responsibility, and most assuredly your friends are doing it as well. But perhaps you have forgotten, as is very easy to do... when one feels lonely. I imagine that this is one of the major struggles, close to what you are feeling: the paradox that as one attempts to find himself in the service of others, one necessarily isolates himself from the very same others.

    In fact, it was written on a recent fortune cookie of mine (the most recent, actually, and the only one which I have ever kept): "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." What the Chinese fortune teller is telling me, for whatever it is worth, is that the best way to find oneself is to isolate oneself from others. Losing oneself and isolating oneself, then, seem to amount to the same thing. But this isolation is not selfish, as that of a hermit, because isolation is defined, here, by the isolation of one's mind from one's body.

    In his devotion to others, one uncouples his mind from his own body and attaches it to the bodies of those he has committed himself to serving. What does this mean? It means that one assesses his success not based on the applause of his own body, but on that of others' Bodies, but not necessarily their minds. Which leads us to ask; who's mind, of those to whom we are committed, is linked to his own body, and who's mind exists elsewhere, on yet an other's behalf? Who's body, on which the selfless man is measuring his worth, is a true respresentation of the selfless man's actual worth?

    It follows that only the most self-interested people, in whom mind leads body and body, mind, are the truest reflectors of the selfless man's toil. If the majority of potential attendees are self-interested, then their presence (present or not) should reflect well the success of the organizer. In fact, it is others' interests which supported the organizer in the first place. The trouble comes when the potential attendees' minds are elsewhere, and this effectively means that, at present, they are blind to the help that the organizer gives, and to which he looks for approval.

    There is also another trouble, and this is when the organizer finds himself concerned, at least in part, with his own body. It is when he measures the success of his endeavor with the approval of his own body.

    Hope that this helps you. It helped me. I wish I could edit this and take out the parts which don't make sense and tailor this response more towards you than towards me. But the window for writing is so small, and I cannot copy and paste either in or out, and I feel discouraged to continue writing if I cannot efficiently take the nonsense out.

    I hear you, Sammy! We hear you, even though it might not be evident at the moment. The last thing I'd like to say is this: Life is a balancing act. This is the thing I hate most about life because it denies me absolute satisfaction. The best thing I can do is try to achieve a middle ground in self-service and the service of others, and this doesn't sound like much fun at all. I wish you the best. I will try to write to you more on this topic when I have a chance to think about it more. It interests me too, and you should know that you have a friend with whom to talk about it. And others galore.