There’s a Jewish summer camp for adults. That sounds so fun. I get a scholarship because I volunteer with a Jewish youth group. The scholarship required an application. One question asked about my favorite Jewish teaching. This is what I wrote:
As a child in Hebrew school, I was the troublemaker. The kid who wouldn’t sit still, whose desk was separated from others by a distance just longer than his arms. Only on one day did I stop making trouble:
I had been scooting around the classroom on my belly when my teacher scratched the side of his nose, our signal for “You’re goofing off, Julian. Stop it.” I ignored it. He signaled for a second time. I ignored it again, because “What’s he gonna do?” Then, he began the story of The Golden Calf. I stopped scooting. I knew this one was going to matter the moment he began. See, The Golden Calf is about worship. It’s about how easy it is to make things sacred. It goes something like this:
“Once upon a time God gave Laws. The first one was “I’m God and that’s it.” Then, Moses, God’s go-between leaves his people alone for TEN MINUTES and they make this statue of a cow, made out of gold. And they were dancing and praying, saying it was their God. Moses got pissed and smashed it.”
Now, why does this matter? What can you learn?
- You’re going to worship. A man locked in prison worships the sunrise he sees through the bars. Deprived of all your senses, you’ll still worship. Consciously choose what you worship, because you’ll act like it’s all that matters.
- Physical objects are easily broken, so don’t make them into Gods. This one sounds obvious, but actually drove human history for a while. Did you know one reason Jews were successful was that they didn’t have physical Gods? If your God was a lump of wood or a rock or a statue, invaders could storm in, steal it, and subjugate your people easily… because they literally have your God! But the Jewish God wasn’t represented in idols. Also probably a good analogy for life: if you worship material goods (or money, say), you’ll be crushed whenever they’re broken. Worship ideals, however, like Honesty, Truth, Love, or Honor, and you’ll be much more resolute.
- It’s easy to build Gods, even accidentally. A friend gifted me an obsidian stone a few months ago. I jokingly began referring to it as “Birdbrain, creator of the universe.” After a while, I noticed I started treating the rock with more respect. I began keeping it safe. Watch out for what you worship, because it’s easy to worship the wrong things. In this case, a stone. Stones are easy to stop worshipping. Hedonism? Codependence? Those are tough worships to drop.
Making the self suffer is a cornerstone of many successful philosophies:
I was prompted to consider this strategy by Conan O’Brien on his podcast with Stephen Colbert. Both Catholics, they described intentionally putting themselves through strife. “I did hairshirt behavior,” Colbert says (34:37).
Conan (36:27): “This is pain… where any normal person would tell you, any therapist would say, ‘This suffering is unnecessary. You achieved nothing with this suffering.”… I put myself through a lot of torture. And here’s the crazy thing: what happens when you do that and then magical things start to happen for you? You can’t see me because it’s a podcast, but Stephen just pointed his finger at me as if to say, ‘You nailed it.’”
Stephen, a few lines later: “It works.”
Conan: “What I hate, I hate… I hate thait it fucking works.”
Stephen: “And the magical thinking magically thinks that magical thinking worked.”
Conan: “It’s the biggest fight I’ve had over the last five years with therapists and friends.” … “Therapists have said, ‘You don’t need the suffering.’ and I 80% believe them and I’m 20% like, ‘what the fuck do you know?'”
Is making yourself suffer a strategy for improving? Does it work? Comments greatly appreciated.
Thanks, Dad, for an incredible day. More connected with you than I’ve felt in memory. Your stories that weaved from place to place—about which I sometimes ask, “what was the point?”—today, the sharing was the point. Maybe that’s always true.
Am I focusing on the present because I’m having intensive surgery on Monday?
Right now, I’m afraid. Not of death, but life:
- What if improving my breathing isn’t miraculous?
- What if I fail?
- What if I die?
Death I can deal with. It’s failure that’s unacceptable.
I’m donating my tomorrow to high school kids. Teaching, mentoring, engrossed in giving.
When I could die at any moment, why do I hop stepping stones?
- “But Kid, the best stepping-stones are rock and their own right.”
I didn’t think about any of that today. Just talked with you, Dad. And I loved it.
On Monday I go in for Jaw Surgery. If I die, I want my tombstone to read, “Died doing what he loves.”
I’ve never seen a footnote on a tombstone. Nor ellipses. I’m updating the medium. The joke makes it more palatable.
I joke because I’m afraid. I’m afraid because it’s frightening. I’ve never been closer to death than I will be on Monday.
I’ve always mused on death. I wrote my first auto-obituary at 13. The same way some people use the largesse of space to decrease their anxiety; I use death to accept depression. When I wake up late enough that I feel grumpy, the phrase “death and taxes” echoes in my mind. It reminds me of two crucial elements – timeliness and humor. One makes today matter and the other makes life worth living.
I’m spending tomorrow and Sunday advising a local high school youth group, and Saturday with my dad. If I die, let it be known I went out doing what I loved.
 Self improvement.
I probably don’t like you. You’re welcome.* (*: Not sarcastic.)
My fourth-grade classroom restricted its students to bringing identical Valentine’s Day cards for everyone or no cards at all. I found this a problem, as most of my classmates were bland blobs, while a vocal minority were… [people I didn’t like].
Only this year—at age 25—did I finally realize I can choose my friends. Four of my friendships ended this year, and I’m glad they did.
An ex ended our friendship—my first official ending—in July, followed by an old poker buddy in August. I ended one in October—my first initiation—and a different ex ended our friendship on Monday. Every one of these has been a wonderful change, with benefits extending far beyond free time.
It’s common knowledge—and I find it experientially true—that you “can’t please all the people all the time.” Apply that to relationships: Some people won’t like you. Turn that around: You won’t like some people.
Ending a friendship is therefore an act of integrity. It forwards your values. It makes manifest your soul.
You prioritize your family. You care about your friends. Most people choose a partner to prefer over all others. Having preferences is Good. It’s the foundation of consciousness.
All my friends have former, now-dead friendships. Most drift apart instead of going out with a bang, but both seem to happen surprisingly often. People grow and change. Friendships die. We can still love what was.
You can hate some people and everything they stand for. You can love with abandon those you prefer. You can express your soul. If someone doesn’t like you, good for them.
What if my dating profile were just a list of my values? After all, that’s what I’m searching for.
My values, 9 Feb 2019
(In the order they came to me)
- Positive impact
- The human species
- Honesty of impact, not necessarily of speech
- Word choice
- Personal optimization
- [Censored for privacy]
- Personal improvement
- The youth group I advise
- [Censored for privacy]
- My long-form creative projects (especially my novel. Soon to be my TV show as well)
Previous values that no longer carry such great strength:
- Board games (comes back out when I’m with old friends/family)
- [Censored for privacy]