Most things are average, by definition, but it is hard to accept one’s own mediocrity. As a lonely and bullied child, I comforted myself, at least on some level, with the thought that I was somehow different to the children who rejected and hurt me, that I was more intelligent and a better person morally and that one day I would get my reward. I thought that when I got to university I would come into my own among like-minded people, but in Oxford I was distinctly average compared to some of the geniuses there and it became clear that I lacked the social skills to make friends and that even in a community that might be expected to have an above-average amount of geeks, I didn’t fit in. I did well in my first year exams, but as the depression took hold in my second year, I achieved less and my final grade at the end of the BA was distinctly average.
This struggle over my identity has never really gone away and lately I have been thinking a lot about what I want out of life. Some of it comes from dating E. and discussing what kind of a life we might build together, but I was thinking along these lines even before we started dating. A lot of the things that I told myself were important to me have come to seem unattainable, at least for me and in some cases I am losing interest in them, particularly regarding religious activities.
I feel I can’t do as much Torah study as I would like or focus on the subjects I would or ‘should’ want to study (Talmud, mainly). I feel I can’t daven (pray) with the right kavannah (mindfulness), the right number of times a day and with a minyan (prayer quorum). I feel my life lacks meaning and spirituality. I’m only vaguely aware, and by repute, of what ‘spirituality’ even is or what it means to experience God as being close. I’ve been very religious about half my life, over a decade and was moderately religious even before then, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a “spiritual experience.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve heard conflicting things from rabbis about whether it’s even possible for me to get simcha shel mitzvah, joy in Judaism, while still depressed, which makes me feel hopeless as I can’t see a time when I’m ever not at least vaguely depressed, in the background. While I know that not everyone in the Jewish community or even the frum (religious) community is living on a permanent spiritual high, the conversations I’ve had or heard and the fact that people persist in living a frum life, with all it’s costs (financial costs, psychological costs, opportunity costs) indicate that they are getting something out of it.
Even aside from joy, I’m living a fairly hand-to-mouth existence at the moment. My depression is less prominent, but it is there and even when my mood is low, my energy and concentration are affected and I can’t do what I would like. Most of my energy goes on work, some on trying to nurture my relationship with E. so it isn’t stillborn, most of the rest goes on basic chores (shopping, cleaning). Only a small amount is available for Jewish stuff, so I don’t have much time or energy for religious study or prayer. I’m trying to make some time at least for studying Jewish topics that interest me rather than just Mishnah and a bit of Gemarah, but, again, it’s hard, and results in my taking several big books in my rucksack to work (I will have back issues one day). I tried to take on a volunteering opportunity, but they never got back to me. As for other things that are important to me: cooking, exercise, writing… forget it. These things have largely faded away lately. I haven’t even been reading much, concentrating on watching Doctor Who as research for my book.
It is very clear now, if it was ever in doubt, that I am not a tzaddik (saintly person) Jewishly, nor am I ever going to be a great a writer, based on the quality of what I write and my failure to fight for it… a real writer would give up religious ritual, or find a way to combine the two (the Hevrian way, but Hevrians wouldn’t understand my lack of spiritual experiences, given that they all seem to experience miracles every five minutes). And I guess that’s OK. I have plans for low-key writing and at some point I’m going to have to decide whether to take time out from contracted work to pursue serious, but non-literary, writing as a career or not. But a real writer wouldn’t be sitting here feeling exhausted and stressed and depressed and hot and hungry and frustrated that this post isn’t saying what I want it to say, he would make it sing!
And I guess it was silly of me to even hope that I could aspire to being a good Jew. I didn’t even go to yeshiva! I can’t even make it to shul more than twice a week! I do half an hour or less of very basic Torah study a day (sometimes only five minutes, when I’m very stressed or busy or the depression is bad). I can’t concentrate on my prayers at all and I find it impossible to get any positive emotions from my ritual observance, even if I can write long essays justifying halakhic (Jewish law) observance and ritual as a key part of the religious life. I can engage intellectually, at least when I’m not too exhausted and depressed, but not emotionally. I can’t live my Judaism, I just go through the motions and observe myself and others from a distance.
I’ve tried to be OK with all of this lately and I thought I was getting there. I thought I was learning to accept that other Jews will look down on me and that on some level they are right to look down on me. I thought I was learning to accept that while I might be able to make some kind of basic career as a jobbing writer, true literature (and acclaim) will always escape me. But today I just feel depressed and unable to accept anything. Part of that is work stress and part of it is probably hunger and exhaustion. But those aren’t going away; well, the hunger hopefully will, for a few hours, but work stress and exhaustion and new relationship anxiety (worth a post in itself) and the intense heaviness of living an ordinary life: working, shopping, cleaning, cooking, showering – the heartache and the thousand chores that flesh is heir to – they aren’t going away. So I need to find some other way to accept my mediocrity.