The best part about growing up and staying in Pittsburgh is that you get to track people for generations. The down side, if you want to call it that, is that you can never escape your past. There’s no telling people you’re younger than you are or that you were smarter or more popular than you were. To live here as an adult, you have to make peace with your past.
And while it is comforting to live in a place where everybody knows everybody else’s names and not just their business but their grandparents’ business, there’s an element of vulnerability that accompanies all this familiarity. I internalized that feeling of vulnerability, maybe too well, in that I grew into adulthood caring more about protecting how I appeared to other people than how I appeared to myself.
As a child, I was terrified that something awful would happen to me; not because of the thing itself, but because I would be one of those people who everyone talked about, pointed to. For my part, I managed to walk the line socially and academically, not embarrassing myself in either endeavor; for His part, G-d saved me from circumstantial humiliation beyond my control. But was that my whole purpose in life–not to be embarrassed in front of people who weren’t my friends anyway?
Maybe because there were hundreds of kids in my the class at Taylor Allderdice High School, everyone had to belong to some sort of a clique, which meant that you couldn’t walk home or eat lunch with anyone else. Were any of us really friends? I don’t think so. We were all just trying to survive, to feel better about ourselves, often by putting others down. Although high school taught me how to walk with an air of impenetrable confidence–and I’m not minimizing that skill–gaining true confidence has been a bit more challenging yet far more satisfying.
The key component to that confidence for me, of course, started with my acceptance that G-d created me with both gifts and challenges, and that I am here for Him on a job called life with an immutable guidebook called Torah. As if trying to internalize all that wasn’t hard enough, there was also this incredibly challenging notion that (political incorrectness drum roll) G-d, Torah and the Jewish People are all one. I mean One. All One. Intertwined and interdependent. To get it right, a person has to get all three right.
Even after I jumped on the Torah bandwagon as a vehicle to know G-d, there was still that elusive third wheel– ahavas yisroel, the love of a fellow Jew. Understanding the notion that each and every Jew has a G-dly essence that transcends our behaviors of thought, speech and deed–the garments of the soul in Chassidic parlance–is meant to translate into an overarching love for one another regardless of those appearances. When we relate to another Jew soul-to-soul– doing for them, caring for them, accepting them–we complete the circle of Oneness, and make G-d divinely happy.
Trying to achieve a greater level of ahavas yisroel has provided me with the bulk of my spiritual work, shedding all vestiges of that self-protecting, high school-fueled cliquishness, making room for everyone else on their terms. It has been challenging work; for me to leave high school has been easier than getting high school to leave me.
Maybe it’s just called growing up, deciding what to take and what to leave about one’s upbringing. And some challenges appear to be universal, even when one is taught what G-d wants and doesn’t want. For example, I now know that it is an egregious sin to speak lashon hara (literally, evil tongue), yet there is apparently something irresistibly satisfying about chewing on other people’s shortcomings. Although I try not to, I hear it too much and I speak it too much; the biggest difference between now and when I was in high school is that now I feel guilty about it. Our souls naturally want to move upward; could it be that it’s just easier to stand on someone else rather than tackle the more difficult job of looking inside ourselves to see what work needs to be done to correct our own failings?
One of the reasons we are cautioned against judging others is that, appearances and behavior notwithstanding, every Jew is equally G-dly at his or her core; Torah teaches and Chassidus emphasizes that our purpose in life is to strive to behave in a way that reveals this G-dliness within ourselves and within others.
I don’t know how my life would be different if I had learned any of this in high school; I’m just glad I’m enrolled in the course now. Understanding what G-d wants can be a difficult subject, but, especially as I get older, it seems like it’s the only one worth trying to do well in.