I am the eldest of nine children, and for as far back as I can remember I was plagued by emotional issues.
I was angry. I was a loner. I was prone to depression, moodiness, and feelings of hopelessness. At home I fought with my siblings for my parent’s attention, while at school I felt like an outsider – an English speaker in an all Hebrew-speaking school.
I felt continuously inadequate. Although I excelled at school, I was never as perfect as I wanted to be. Any feelings of satisfaction I achieved from even my most significant accomplishments would fade within minutes – no matter how hard I tried to hold on to them.
As a teenager, I felt like the world was out to get me. I could not find the perfect school environment to suit my needs, and I started wandering from school to school in search of the ideal environment. It didn’t exist.
In short, I was an unhappy person.
I decided to join the army.
Although this was an unusual decision for the ultra-orthodox community in which I grew up, I felt I needed a change, to do something different than study Jewish texts like I had done for the past 15 years of my life (for most of those years I had attended a school with no vacations or holidays whatsoever – that 354 days of study a year).
But why the army specifically? I had several reasons:
- I wanted to learn discipline. I was sick of waking up at 12 o’clock (I know, that’s early for a teenager, right? But still…) and bumming around. I wanted the army to whip me into shape.
- I wanted to expand my horizons. I wanted to encounter new parts of the country, and to meet new aspects of society. I had grown up in a sociological bubble, and I knew it. I wanted to make it pop.
- I wanted to belong. I had always been a loner, and I hoped that the army’s legendary ability to create brothers in arms would finally allow me to bond with other people, and experience a feeling of closeness to other human beings. I wanted to feel like I was part of something bigger.
Man plans and God laughs
Things did not turn out as planned. I found out after enlisting that my magnificently terrible eyesight meant that I could not serve in a combat unit. Instead, I was placed as a sort of social worker in a unique, all-religious unit. This was a stressful role, one which was traditionally reserved for women (at a ratio of 300:1), and the army really didn’t know what to do with a male version of the “Mashakit Tash”.
This resulted in the following ironic circumstances:
- I learned no discipline at all. I fell between the cracks of the military establishment, and was able to do pretty much whatever I wanted as long as I got the job done. While the soldiers I was caring for had to awaken at 6am after sleeping in a tent, I awoke whenever I felt like in my air-conditioned office.
- I did not expand my horizons. I ended up being stationed for almost my entire service (16 months) on the same army base, surrounded by orthodox and formerly-orthodox soldiers. The exact kind I was trying to get away from.
- I did not belong. My military role was so unique that I did not fit in anywhere. I was the awkward religious boy who had never spoken to a girl before, in an office full of female soldiers. I was the guy who random soldiers laughed at on the street because of my unique insignia. I was the kid who had run a half-marathon in preparation for his service, only to polish his glasses sadly on the sidelines while some overweight kid puffed his way through the obstacle course.
Success from the inside out
What point exactly, do I intend to make with this glum story of misery and anguish? (Oh, the sweet satisfaction of self-pity!)
Simply this: your circumstances will never affect your happiness.
It took me a while to realize this point, but now it is clear to me that this was the message of my army service. You can’t run away from your problems, they begin and end in your head.
If I am an undisciplined person, no amount of structure would have any lasting impact. If I feel like I’m in a bubble, then no experience will really be able to impact me. And if I feel alienated from other people, no amount of closeness can get rid of the loneliness.
This is a harsh realization to have, because it is comfortable to blame our circumstances for our problems – and often there seems to be plenty of evidence to support the assumption.
Your circumstances will never affect your happiness.
The first time I realized this – that I was not an island of perfection surrounded by a sea of humbugs, and that actually, it was closer to the other way around – I felt like I had been hit by a ton of bricks. I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning.
But there is positive flip side to this depressing coin. If all your problems begin with you, then all the solutions begin with you as well. You do not need any sort of circumstantial success to become a happier, more balanced, and successful person. This too is completely up to you.
Now that I’ve placed the burden of responsibility – for both your happiness and unhappiness – entirely on your shoulders, you might be wondering what this has to do with Jewish meditation. Good question. That will be the topic of next week’s lesson, but here’s the hint: Jewish meditation is one of the best tools at your disposal with which you can change yourself.
And, as we’ve already ascertained, if you can change yourself, you can change everything.
You can’t run away from your problems, they begin and end in your head
Let’s end this lesson with an exercise. Take just three minutes to write out the answers to the following three questions. But don’t just think about it. Actually write. Find a quiet place, pop in some headphones, spend three minutes alone, and write.
- What are your biggest dreams, your deepest desires in life?
- What are your biggest challenges in life? What do you feel is holding you back from fulfilling your dreams?
- Of the challenges you listed in question #2, what aspects of them are circumstantial? Are there parts that you feel come from within you?
Now that you’ve done that (and I hope you’ve done that), go ahead and email your insights to yourself. Or better yet, email it to me, shalom [at] hishtalmoot.com. I would love to hear from you – there is nothing I love more than helping people achieve their dreams and to understand themselves more deeply. So please, be in touch.
Until next week,