Trying Not to Get Annoyed

I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

***

Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

***

Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)

Breaking Up and Impostor Syndrome

E. and I broke up.  It was a mutual thing, more or less.  It isn’t fair of me to go into too many details.  I’ll just say that we realised our needs were no longer compatible.  To be honest, it’s been on the cards since last week and I was really just holding on for therapy yesterday to check that I wasn’t rushing into something stupid.  Because of that, I feel like I’ve done a lot of my grieving over the last week or so.  I feel numb and empty now, and somewhat depressed, but not as much as a few days ago.

In the end, it was like breaking up with my first, and only previous, girlfriend: everything seemed fine, until suddenly it wasn’t.  My needs suddenly weren’t being met and I was told I wasn’t meeting her needs, and neither of us felt able to change things without hurting ourselves.  I find it scary how quickly it fell apart.  I worry that I can never be sure that I have a good relationship; the next day my partner might turn around and want me to behave completely differently.  I guess it’s for the best that it happened now and not ten years down the line.

It’s hard, because E. wasn’t just my girlfriend, but also my best friend, and the only person outside my family I’ve been really close to lately.  I’m not sure whether we will stay friends.  We did that the first time we broke up and ended up drifting back into a romantic relationship, which clearly was not a good idea with hindsight, so maybe we both need a clean break.  The problem is, neither of us have that many other friends, so I’ll feel lonely as well as worried about her being lonely.

I feel I have a lot of love to give someone, but I doubt there is anyone compatible and don’t know how to meet someone even if there is.  My issues would probably preclude any kind of stable, long-term relationship, which is the only kind I want.  I’ve been lonely for much of my life, so I’m used to it, but it is still hard.

***

On an unrelated note, last night and today I’ve been thinking about something that happened in my first job, several years ago.  I was working in the library of a Jewish educational institution (I’m trying to keep things vague, but there aren’t many such institutions in London).  Sometimes people would donate books or even their personal libraries to us when they died.  A female rabbi (Reform) connected with the institution died and bequeathed her library and I spent my final months there cataloguing it.

Cataloguing someone’s library is a curiously intimate experience, because you learn what their real interests are.  Previously I’d worked on the library of someone who was involved in the campaign for Soviet Jewry, and he obviously had a lot of books on the USSR, Soviet Jewry and Jewish dissidents.  As for this rabbi she was a radical lesbian feminist and had a lot of books on feminism (Jewish and general), which made me wonder if she would instinctively dislike me, given that I’m Orthodox and Orthodoxy is not exactly feminist (although I consider myself as feminist as an Orthodox Jew can be, if not a bit more) or LGBT-friendly.  I never had the chance to meet her, but she had a reputation in the institution as someone who held strong opinions and who didn’t suffer fools, which made her sound a bit scary too.  But she also had a lot of books on Jewish religious existentialism (Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, etc.) and, surprisingly, on Hasidism.  At the time I was exploring both of those, and I felt a sense of kinship.

One day I came across an article she had written in a journal where she said she was interested in Hasidism, but felt that she would be rejected by the rabbis she admired because of her sex (and possibly also her sexuality, I don’t remember).  It was surprisingly vulnerable – “surprisingly” because everything everyone said about her made her seem tough and abrasive, the type of person who would just say, “Accept me as I am; if not, it’s your loss, not mine.”  Suddenly she seemed a much more complicated person than she did from the way everyone spoke about her, although her library had given me the first clue that this was the case.  It made me feel even more of a link to her, because wherever I am, I feel I would be rejected, doubly so at this institution, where I always felt a bit of an outsider because I’m Orthodox and the institution was not.

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this.  Maybe I’m trying to tell myself that everyone has issues or feels an outsider sometimes or has Impostor Syndrome.

***

There is a wider issue here about assuming people will reject me because of my views.  I’ve spoken a lot about doing that in the frum community, but I do it in other places too.  Lately I’ve been avoiding people with different political views, less because I disagree with them (I’m used to having minority opinions and I try to be non-judgmental of people I disagree with or who have different lives), and more because of fear they would reject me and “cancel” me if they knew I thought differently.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried.  It’s hard to tell.

***

Today was not a great day for achievements.  I woke early (or got woken, I’m not sure), but was too depressed to get out of bed and fell asleep again.  The second time I woke up was late and I was still depressed, but I had to make myself get up.  I cooked dinner and went for a half-hour walk.  I did half an hour of Torah study.  Otherwise, I was too nervous and depressed about breaking up with E. to really do anything else like working on my novel.  I might do some more Torah study after dinner or work on my novel.  I don’t know.  Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day.

***

“The future lies this way.” Doctor Who: Logopolis by Christopher H. Bidmead

Being an Imposter and Crossing Barriers

This post is about two topics which are not really related, but I don’t think either quite warrants a whole post.  Anyway, I’ve been thinking about both of them recently.

One is feeling an impostor.  At work today I helped a student, but I felt I handled the situation badly at first and it took me a couple of minutes to really get to grips with what I should be doing.  I think I’ve mentioned before that when someone suddenly comes to me with a problem, particularly when I’m on the issue desk, my mind freezes and it takes a couple of minutes to engage with what I can do to solve it, probably from a mixture of social anxiety (anxious about appearing stupid or having to speak to a stranger) and Asperger’s (difficulties reading people feeding in to the social anxiety, but perhaps also executive function issues making it hard to come to a snap decision and having difficulty suddenly changing tasks).  Even then, I don’t always feel like I handled the situation well and I still often have to ask my colleagues for help, even after six months here.  I feel like an impostor, like I don’t really belong in this job.

Likewise, I had to work out the long Dewey number for a book and I was dreading it.  I hadn’t had to work out a long Dewey number since my first term on my librarianship MA, seven years ago.  The previous library I worked at used a specialised, simpler, system and the books here normally come from the publishers with the Dewey number, but one book slipped through the net.  Again, I felt like an impostor.  As it happened, I was able to import the Dewey number from elsewhere and it was just a case of deducing how it had been derived so I could work out how to shorten it to fit our standard, which still took me some time, but wasn’t so hard.  I do worry about what would happen if I had to classify with long Dewey numbers as a matter of course, something I used to be able to do, but a skill I have lost with lack of use.

Sometimes, though, the opposite situation happens and I feel a connection with people who I don’t have much in common with, at least at first glance.  I have a number of non-Jewish and non-religious friends, which is quite unusual for a frum (religious) Orthodox Jew.  Most frum Jews in my experience only socialise with other frum Jews, even if they have non-Jewish work colleagues.

Most of my contacts of this kind are online, but not all of them.  Usually the link is mental health issues, which are a great leveller.  Mental illness is completely egalitarian.  It does not discriminate based on age, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or religion, it will happily take anyone.  In this way, I have come to know a number of people who I consider my friends, online (through this blog and elsewhere) and in my depression support group.  As far as I can tell, a number of the people reading regularly this are religious Christians.  There are a few Orthodox Jews and at least one atheist and one who I think self-describes as pantheist/pagan.  Of course, there are a lot of people whose beliefs or lack of I don’t know at all, it just depends on whether they say anything in comments here or on their own blogs that make it clear.

I sometimes wonder how I manage to do this, how I, a person with few friends, particularly in the real world, and social anxieties that often prevent me making contact even with people who are like me, manages to reach out and connect with people who are very different to me.  I guess some of it is that I am a fairly tolerant and non-judgemental person.  I can get along with people who believe different things to me and who do things that I would never do.  Perhaps I also have less fear that I have let them down or that they will reject me for failing to live up to the religious and social standards of the frum (religious) community.  I tend to take people at face value and if they are nice to me, I respond in kind (if they are unpleasant, I avoid them).  Plus encountering people online is easier than meeting them in real life.  Like many Asperger’s sufferers, I find written communication much easier than spoken communication, so meeting people on blogs and websites is much easier than meeting them in real life, even at my depression group.

I don’t really know what to do about either of these things, the impostor syndrome and the ability to connect.  I hope the impostor syndrome will go with time as I get more used to my still relatively new job and the very different working environment I now find myself in.  As for connecting, I sometimes wonder if this is part of my mission in life, but I don’t know in what way or how to turn it to good use.  Interfaith dialogue would be the obvious way, but Orthodox Jews tend not to get involved in interfaith dialogue, for religious and, I suspect social/traditional reasons and I have to say that it has never really interested me, for various reasons.  My friend Louise commented here a while back to suggest that maybe my mission is to testify to something.  I would hope at least that I testify in my writing that Jews are normal people (my mental health notwithstanding), that we have the same issues and worries, the same hopes and dreams as everyone else, that we (or some of us, at least) can have wider cultural and geeky interests like anyone else and that our religion offers comfort and challenges like every other great religion or philosophy.  Maybe that is all I need to testify to, at least for now.

(Just as an aside, I’m hoping to write one post a week that is like this one, more of a mini-essay on an aspect of mental health than a ‘what went wrong today’ diary type of post, perhaps using my lunch break for blogging rather than my Doctor Who book one day a week.  I am also experimenting with changing the way I use the tags in an effort to get more Jewish readers.  As far as I can tell (and I may be completely wrong) a lot of my followers have come to my blog through having my blog suggested to them by WordPress.  I’m guessing (and I may be wrong again) that WordPress’ algorithm is based on my tag usage and my existing followers (hence the exponentially increasing numbers of Christian mental health bloggers reading this, who all seem to read each others’ blogs, judging by their likes).  Up until now I have been using the tags with my librarian’s hat on, like catalogue metadata (data about data e.g. keywords to locate a book – a large part of my job involves essentially tagging books in the library catalogue) i.e. only using terms if very relevant and trying to keep a limited, controlled vocabulary for consistency.  I have bent those rules a bit, more than I would at work, to make it easier for me to find particular posts, but I am thinking of using a larger set of core tags even if they are not key parts of the post, provided I think someone might want to find the post using that term, and even if I may never use that term again.  This is intended to increase the number of people who might have my posts recommended to them.  I also intend to use more Hebrew and Yiddish tags, including tagging with the same term in Hebrew/Yiddish and English (e.g. ‘God’ and ‘HaShem‘ or ‘dating’ and ‘shidduch‘) to get my posts recommended to more Jewish bloggers.)