Monday, March 14, 2011

Finding Faith

Today’s post is from guest blogger, Allison Josephs, who blogs at about faith and finding meaning in life.

Grandpop Sam, an avowed Capitalist by the age of 12, fled Communist Russia, leaving his entire family—and religious observance—behind. He arrived in America penniless and barely conversant in English.  Within a decade he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, married, opened a cigar factory, and was soon buying himself a new Cadillac every two years. Sam never returned to his homeland—or his Judaism.

Great Grandfather Abraham did not fare as well. His haberdashery barely made a trifling profit, despite staying open on Shabbat.  He died at 36, leaving his young wife and three children to struggle through endless financial hardship.

But three generations later, my sisters and I typified secular American Jewry: upper middle class, educated, and assimilated. My father was a doctor. We had a pool, vacation house, and attended private school. We took dance, gymnastics, ice skating, tennis, baton twirling, piano lessons - and Hebrew school. Saturday mornings we played tickle-wars with dad, followed by mom’s waffles-and-bacon breakfast. We rarely missed Thursday night out for Chinese food.
And yet, at a young age, I felt a growing sense of existential angst.

It began when I was eight. Dad told me about this idea called “infinity.” He was trying to explain that not only do numbers go on forever, but there is also infinite space between every integer. Along the way he mentioned that the universe has no end.  I went to bed utterly confused.

A few weeks later, my parents got a clock for my bedroom. As I stayed up nights thinking about an endless universe, the loudly ticking clock also got me thinking about the endlessness of time.

A tragic event when I was in 4th grade, launched me into years of insomnia, panic attacks and existential angst. My schoolmate Angela’s father went crazy. Thinking he was going to die, he took his kids along. Angela’s mother came home to find her whole family dead at her husband’s hand.

I realized that I too, could die at any moment; that life was not as stable and predictable as I had assumed. This got me thinking about the eternity of death—how I’d be either somewhere or nowhere forever. Then I realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life, before I had to confront eternity.

I asked my parents, “Why are we here?”

“Where?” they responded.

“You know, living. What are we here for?”

My parents’ inability to answer this upset and surprised me. They had brought me into this world. How could they not know what they were doing in it? They’d gotten me tangled up in this mess of existence when they hadn’t even figured it out for themselves yet. 

I asked others, but no one seemed able to answer this very basic question.

During the day, when I was tied up with school or other activities, I pushed away the big question, but at night I was left alone with my thoughts.  Why did the day I just lived even matter? Why should I bother waking up tomorrow to do it all over again?

I worried that I might die without ever having figured out my purpose here; but I never once considered the possibility that there was no purpose. The world seemed too detailed and complex, human beings too full of talent and abilities, to be for nothing. But each day that passed brought me one day closer to the end; once my time ran out, I would get no more.  As my mind fixated on the fact that there was no escaping the eternity that awaited me, I’d get a nauseous, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Junior year of high school I took a class called “Taoism and Pirkei Avot” at the local Jewish supplementary school. My teacher, a young Orthodox Jew, showed us that Pirkei Avot was profound and relevant. For the first time I understood that Judaism had more to offer than good food, humor, and guilt.

That winter, my family took a trip to Hawaii. We stayed right by the shore, and for a week I listened to the waves, morning, afternoon, and evening. They never stopped crashing. My father and I figured out that if the world was only a million years old, the waves on that shore would have crashed 10 to 12 trillion times, without stopping. But not just on that shore—on countless shores across the planet.

It hit me: if I had spent 16 years taking something so profound for granted, I must be missing much more. I spent the rest of my vacation trying to appreciate the natural world.

On the last day of our trip, my family and I were hiking through a breathtaking tropical rainforest. We came upon some bamboo shoots whose bark was covered in green and gold vertical stripes.  Another tree had smooth bark, a lavender background, and was covered in pink, blue, and green swirls.

“Did someone paint these on here?” I wondered aloud. Everyone had an opinion. Some said painted, some said natural. 

“These lines are too straight and flawless to be natural,” my father assured us.
But when I looked up, I saw that the shoots towered fifty feet up, with stripes all the way to the top.

For a brief moment, I tapped into the harmony in existence.   I realized that every thing in the universe, from comet to caterpillar, was in exactly the right place and time - including me. 
And in an instant, I went from intense doubting to intense belief in G-d.   

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Great article. Makes me want to walk outside and appreciate nature - then I, too, might have an enlightening.