In or out… No, not Brexit!  I spent an hour working on my novel.  Actually, I spent most of an hour procrastinating and not doing very much.  I wrote a little bit, but I cut just as much, so the net word count increase was zero.  I can see that I’m telling rather showing, which is not good, but I’m not sure how to fix that.  I feel like my actual story hasn’t started yet (this is only the first chapter) and that I have to tear through some background information first so that people understand my characters.  I guess this is only possible because I have a first-person narrator (actually two narrators; chapter two will pose the same problems for the other one) and I can relate what happened without showing it because it still sounds like someone talking and interpreting his life, rather than a third-person narrator just saying, “My main character went to school, was bullied, had no friends…”  How do you show a bunch of conversations where nothing happened except the main character standing quietly, every school-day for several years?  I’m not sure.

I suppose the bottom line is, if it isn’t stuff happening it isn’t part of the narrative (which is a fancy word for stuff happening) and doesn’t belong in the novel… yet I feel it does belong in it, to help people understand my narrator/main character.  It’s confusing.  Maybe I just don’t trust myself enough to be able to allude to this background in my later chapters.  Or maybe I’m worried that my word count will be too low without it (well, I am worried about that).

If I do cut it, I won’t regret spending time writing what I have written so far (nearly 7,000 words).  It’s been a good warm up exercise and I think it’s helped me understand my main character better, who he is and how he got to where he is.

***

In a comment on my last post, Ashley Leia said that there are a lot of “shoulds” in my religious life which don’t correspond to “wants.”  Similarly, when I did group therapy a while back, we were taught not to say “should,” but “could” as “could” is empowering rather than judgemental.  This is true, but I don’t know how to change it.  I feel that I can’t get away from the fact that Judaism is a religion of shoulds.  For all that The Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, sees the mitzvot as “pieces of advice,” the reality is that “mitzvah” means “commandment” (not “good deed” as Reform Jews often translate it).  The Talmud sees someone who does something because he or she is commanded as greater than someone who does it voluntarily, precisely because there is an instinctive resistance to being commanded to do something that makes following the shoulds difficult, but necessary.  I find it hard to imagine any religious Orthodox Jew thinking of the mitzvot as things they “could” do, because by implication that means they could not do them, which is unthinkable.

A lot of frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) apologists say that Judaism is an ethic of responsibility rather than an ethic of rights, unlike Western secular society.  That’s not as straightforward a point as is sometimes projected by the apologists (rights and responsibilities can point to each other), but it is fairly valid as a general rule.  Judaism speaks of what we have a responsibility to do rather than what we have a right to do.  (Note that Viktor Frankl wanted America to have a Statue of Responsibility as well as a Statue of Liberty.)  I find the ethic of responsibility more meaningful than the ethic of rights and wants.

However, there is no denying that I don’t particularly want to do a lot of the “shoulds” in my life at the moment (general life as well as religious life).   That’s a product partly of depression, which makes it hard to want to do anything, but also of the fact that I struggle to cope with anything involving community because of social anxiety, and a lot of Orthodox life is community-based.  I also struggle to study Talmud and lately I struggle to extract much meaning or inspiration from any Torah study at all.  I can’t understand how so many other people at my shul (synagogue), who do not appear to be inherently more intelligent than me, can understand and apparently enjoy Talmudic study when I can not.  Is it just that they spent time in a yeshiva where they were taught how to study properly?  I’m not sure that all of them have spent time in such an environment.  And while some of them may also be “passing,” I can’t believe that they’re all faking it.

I’m not even sure what I would find inspiring.  I’m finding The Spiritual Revolution of Rav Kook quite inspiring, although I was familiar with many of his views even if I hadn’t seen them quoted at length primary sources.  I have actually been wishing I could somehow talk to him and ask his advice on my life, but he’s been dead since 1936.  I think he would have understood some of my problems.

There is a concept in Judaism of “Ones Rachmana patrei” meaning essentially that if you were forced to do something wrong, you don’t get punished.  Forced can mean physical force by a third party or forced by circumstances e.g. not fasting on Yom Kippur is normally a severe sin, but if you are ill and have to eat to stay alive, it is permitted (and quite probably obligatory.  There’s a wonderful story of the nineteenth century rabbi Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, a very great nineteenth century Talmudist and legalist, who was accused of being overly lenient in exempting people from fasting on Yom Kippur.  He replied, “No, I’m very strict about saving lives!”).

The problem for me is applying this to mental health issues.  I haven’t seen any really clear guidelines for lay people about this.  I’ve spoken informally with my rabbi mentor a bit about this over the years, especially regarding Torah study, but it is hard to know where my reasonable limits are, especially when my mood and energy levels can vary enormously over time, from year to year, day to day or even hour to hour.  It’s not like a physical illness where I might feel nauseous or dizzy if I spent too long standing in prayer or concentrating in Torah study and know it’s time to stop.  I worry, “Should I have pushed myself a bit more?”

***

My mood was persistently mildly to moderately low all day.  My mood usually starts low like this, but it didn’t get better in the afternoon as is usually the case.  The fact that I watched another episode of The Vietnam War over lunch may have contributed to that.  It’s a really compelling piece of documentary television with disturbing contemporary footage and a good balance of high level politics/military details and human interest interviews with people from both sides of the conflict, but it’s very depressing.  Depressing how people can do things they know are wrong because they are drilled to act as an automaton or blinded by politics or patriotism or just too ashamed to dissent.  It’s more depressing how politicians can start and wage wars they know are morally wrong and unwinnable in practical terms for nebulous geopolitical reasons or even for personal political advantage.  And I keep wondering what I would do if I was in that situation.  I’ve still got another three episodes to go.

The rest of the day was variable.  A friend suggested another small press publisher for my Doctor Who book, but on investigation, they turned out not to accept submissions on spec.  I walked to and from shul (synagogue) for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).  The brisk walk in the dark and cool was somewhat invigorating, but it’s a bit depressing that it’s dark by 8.00pm now.  I guess it surprised me this year as the autumn Yom Tovim (festivals) are late, in terms of the solar calendar.  (Unlike Christianity/the secular West, which has a solar calendar or Islam, which has a lunar calendar and drifts around relative to the solar year, Judaism has a lunar calendar adjusted with occasional leap years (added month) so that it never falls too far out of alignment with the solar year.  Jewish festivals move around in a window of six weeks or so in the solar year.)  Usually shorter days is something I think of as happening during the Yom Tovim rather than beforehand.

I arrived at shul at the same time as the rabbi, who spoke to me.  My brain did the irritating thing it does (which I attribute to social anxiety and/or autism) where I’m so anxious that someone’s talking to me and worried about saying the wrong thing that I can’t register what they’re actually saying and keeping having to get them to repeat themselves.  I puzzled over one question in particular.  He was asking me about my plans for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and used what I thought was some kind of strange Yiddish expression I’d never heard before: “Are you ein veyt able?”  It turned out he was asking if I was “invite-able” i.e. could he invite me to dinner at his house or did my parents want me to stay with them for all the festive meals.  In the end he has invited me for this Shabbat (Sabbath) i.e. Friday night.  I will go, but I get nervous about saying the wrong thing and I’m worried whether I will make it to shul on Shabbat morning if I’m anxious the night before and then still exhausted in the morning.  I used to feel comfortable talking to rabbis, but nowadays I’m too scared of saying the wrong thing: there’s the usual worries of being asked about why I’m unemployed and (in the frum community) of being asked why I’m not married, but also the fear of being asked why I don’t come to shul so much or why I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), or saying something that marks me as “modern.”

I’m still conflicted about the issue that I mentioned a while back, about studying Mishnah for the sake of someone from shul not much older than me who died.  They’ve got a lot of Mishnah being studied, but it’s only a small group of people doing it, all of whom are studying loads (in theory.  I mean, it’s possible that they could just read through the Mishnah without really understanding it.  I assuming they’re really trying to comprehend it).  It would be good to do something with the community, but I don’t really believe that studying Torah can help the dead and it seems wrong to use someone’s death to signal my virtue to the community.  Plus, it would disrupt my already disrupted study pattern (disrupted by depression).  I guess this is more shoulds.

One more should: I suspect I could have been picked to lead Ma’ariv tonight, but the gabbai (the person responsible for the day to day running of the services) asked me once months ago and I turned him down from social anxiety and I suspect he read it as me saying that my Hebrew isn’t good enough.  I suppose I could explicitly tell him I could do it, but that would seem rather brazen and I think my social anxiety would stop me.

4 thoughts on “Writer’s Block, Religious Shoulds and Shul Stuff

  1. Perhaps with mental illness it will always be a bit of a moving target as to what’s doable and what’s not (in terms of religion or otherwise). If you’re feeling more depressed because you can’t keep up with the “shoulds”, and then in turn feeling worse makes you less able to meet religious obligations, it seems like it would be easy to get caught in a self-defeating cycle.

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