It was that moment during my lesson on the mythic hero’s journey when it was time to talk philosophically:
Some potential heroes are reluctant to answer the call to adventure. There are reasons to feel that way – sometimes really good reasons. Perhaps they don’t feel prepared to go slay the shark in Jaws. Maybe they believe that there are other far more qualified scientists who can destroy the asteroid that’s hurtling towards Earth in Armageddon. Sometimes they feel comfortable in the complacency of their ordinary world, like Billy Madison. But part of being a hero is that it is that person’s destiny to answer that call and to go take that journey and achieve that quest. How many of you believe that our lives are in some manner preordained and that everything actually happens for a reason?
The entire room was suddenly filled with hands raised far into the air – and my entire mind was suddenly filled with the realization that I am just not like everybody else.
I do not accept the notion that everything happens for a reason, and I kind of wish that I did because I think there has to be some intrinsic comfort in holding dear to such a belief system. Pain and loss and missteps are difficult to overcome no matter what it is that you believe, but I think that maybe if I had a core thought process that continually dictated to me the mantra that every moment of confusion was constructed for my path by a higher power and wading through and eventually surviving each was done so I could achieve better clarity might serve to bring me something resembling relief.
Relief must be a very nice emotion to have.
I think that we are the creators of our fate. I think we are the only ones who can possibly hold ourselves back from what we decide must be our destiny. I think the repetition of unfortunate patterns is a personality flaw, not a fate-driven lesson.
My closest friend is a big believer in karma. She feels certain that by putting out positive thoughts and good energy, that positivity will come back to you – and there’s something about what she says that I can very much get behind. I know, for example, when I feel energetic and happy and motivated that the results are that great things come my way, but I’m not sure that I believe that what you throw out to the universe as far as how you treat people always comes back to haunt or to celebrate you. I think that some people create their own luck. I think that some people are too afraid to create at all.
I wonder sometimes if my inability to hold the concepts of fate and karma and destiny in my mind is directly related to the fact that I am not religious. I didn’t have a childhood where I was taught to pray and the only reason I ever attended any kind of religious service was for a major holiday or for an event. I’ve been to both churches and temples and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable at either of them and what stands out to me the most looking back now are the details that felt comforting or bizarre, like how my father could tell that I was getting bored during someone’s bar mitzvah service so he pushed his tallit towards me. That tallit – which I still just think of as a scarf with fringe and whose significance I still do not know – kept me occupied. I braided the fringe while the thirteen-year-old kid who had become a pretend man sang an off-tune Hebrew prayer. I remember feeling almost annoyed by how many times we had to stand up and sit down during the service and I remember that I always liked some of what the rabbis said because they always struck me as wise – a proverb on a fortune cookie come to life – but I never felt more at peace during or after being in temple. I didn’t expect that I’d feel more at peace in a church and I didn’t, but I definitely felt more out of place that time I was there for a funeral and everybody went to kneel and so I did too and my mother, who was sitting in the row directly behind me, all but lifted me back up by my ponytail.
“We’re supposed to kneel,” I whispered to her and then pointed at the thing we were meant to kneel upon. I thought that maybe she didn’t know.
“Jewish people don’t kneel,” she mumbled back in a rush. “You can just stay seated.”
I also remember going with a friend of mine to her church spectacular. She knew that I was Jewish, but she told me wonderful stories of games that could be played and raffles that could be won and that if I threw a ping pong ball directly into an empty fishbowl, I could maybe win myself a goldfish. She also mentioned something about a funnel cake and I’m not at all embarrassed to tell you that is why I asked my mother if I could attend. I mean, I’d lick powdered sugar off my bare hand – and it might be the closest I’d ever come to believing in any kind deity.
What my friend failed to mention is that before the games and the funnel cake eating could commence, we would have to sit through an entire church service. I wanted – even at ten years old – to be open to things, so I took my place quietly in the pew next to her and her mother and listened as the priest talked about how inclusive religion should be.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Methodist or Christian or Protestant, he said with a benevolent smile. God is always here for you.
I watched the people around me smile and nod and I just sat there frozen and wondered if he was maybe saving mentioning the Jewish people until the very end of the service. That was the moment I felt entirely left out and different and a little bit confused that maybe my religion was frowned upon, maybe even by God since I figured the priest was friends with God and he hadn’t mentioned us. The entire evening would’ve been deemed a total disaster had I not won a goldfish on my very first try. I named him Tweedle and no goldfish in the history of all of the goldfish has ever received more love.
Maybe if I’d had the belief drummed into my head that everything indeed happens for a reason, I could look at that childhood church moment as a lesson that I should always try to be inclusionary or maybe that I should actually visit a temple on my own volition and not out of sheer necessity for an event, but all that went through my mind during all of those religious events was the thought that religion wasn’t really my kind of venue.
I’d have to locate some faith on my own in the real world.
That said, I never look down on anyone who feels differently than I do because I saw early on that faith and belief in destiny offered some kind of internal pacification. I always tried to achieve such a feeling through logic and sometimes it worked – at least for thirty seconds or so. When my father died suddenly in front of me, I was adamant about telling myself that yes, the circumstances were beyond horrific, but at least I had fourteen years with a caring, hilarious, loving father. At least I had that. But I could never even bring myself to contemplate that he died so that I could learn a lesson or that some spiritual power had decided an immeasurable amount of time ago that I was to be a girl who only got to have a father for a ridiculously short time in my life. And I never believed that he went to a better place because I never much believed in heaven and I knew that unless it was a place he could go fishing from a shoreline while drinking a gin and tonic and watching the World Series, he would have rather remained in this particular realm with me.
I got through that time by getting through it. There were days to trudge through and therapy to go to and journals to write in and friends to cry upon and nights through which I was meant to sleep. None of it was easy, but I’m not actually sure that it was that experience that gave me the strength I have today. I think that if I didn’t already have some level of strength, I never would have gotten through those days.
A year to the day after my father died, one of my closest friends was killed in a car accident. I was right in the throes of experiencing that horrible reemergence of searing pain that flows around those left behind when the anniversary of a death arrives, so I was not teetering on the tippy top of the mountain of my emotional strength when I got the news about Jackie. It was absolutely awful – beyond tragic. She was beautiful and smart and scrappy and a loyal friend and she deserved to have a full and happy life. I’d met her in the second grade right after my parents got divorced and we had moved to a smaller house on the other side of town. Jackie and I bonded on the seesaw because we were the only two kids in our grade with divorced parents and she took me under her wing and introduced me to all the people she knew and we stayed close friends until she died.
Some moments just stay with you and those days of that year in that particular August have never left me. I can still see all of us showing up at school during the summer where the Guidance Counselors made themselves available so we could talk about our loss. I remember feeling numb and hollow and that I was most afraid for how my friend Carley would handle it all because they were very close and she had never experienced loss before. I remember telling myself that I would not feel gutted forever and that I had the strength to get through all of it, even the funeral where a few of us had to walk up to her casket and lay a flower upon it and how I basically had to drag Carley down the aisle of that church as we followed the casket in and that I knew with everything that I had that I could carry her if I had to.
I remember feeling dazed after the funeral was over and standing in the front room of the church and how all of us hugged one another. I remember thinking that Jackie wouldn’t get to dance at her own Sweet Sixteen and about how I felt guilty when the guy she liked hugged me and held me close and whispered that he would always be there for me. I remembered how almost a year before, we’d been asked to write a journal entry in English class about a defining moment in our lives and I started writing about my father who had only been gone for three months then and how I choked back tears and walked into the hallway and that Jackie followed me to make sure I was okay and to suggest that maybe I write about someone else. I remember how two days after the funeral, a guy in our friend group I was not all that close to called me up and told me that he just wanted to let me know how impressed he was by my strength and that he was sorry I was being tested so often and that guy ended up becoming the first boy I ever really loved and maybe it wasn’t just because he was cute and funny, but because he actually saw something in me that I was proud of, though I’d give back every bit of my strength to have those people here again.
But I also remember going over to Jackie’s house soon after her passing to visit with her mother. I couldn’t believe that seeing us made her feel better because how could our presence remind her of anything but her daughter’s absence? Still, she asked us to come over and I think we brought her flowers and we wanted to be there for her, but I was only fifteen and I walked up the short entry staircase into their house and was immediately confronted by a portrait of my friend that never used to be there. The painting was of Jackie and she was wearing a beautiful dress – the one she had been buried in.
For the life of me, I could not imagine how her mother could look at that picture every day, especially so quickly after her loss. I know that sitting in her living room, sipping iced tea and acting like it was in any way normal for me to be visiting the mother of my dead friend a year after losing my own father was something to endure for somebody else’s sake, but I couldn’t comprehend how the woman in front of me was even surviving, other than because she kind of had no choice.
I am so sorry for your loss. It was something I kept saying to her, and I don’t know why I said it except for the fact that it was the same bland statement people said to me after my father died and the words weren’t deep enough to penetrate the layers of steel I’d placed around my insides so those words didn’t cause me to cry and I didn’t want Jackie’s mother to cry any more than she had to and yet I still wanted her to know that I cared about her and that I could at least guess at her level of internal misery.
She’s in a better place now, she told us with a rueful smile, and I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction was to almost roll my eyes at such a ridiculous statement. Jackie was a kid. She should be here, not a heaven that I couldn’t fully believe in.
I’m glad I kept my mouth shut and that I forced my eyes not to roll despairingly, because what I realized in the next second was that Jackie’s mother believed fully in what she was saying and the belief brought her a comfort I wanted her to wrap herself inside of like an embrace. And it was then that I realized that believing genuinely that things happen for a reason and that the next world would be even better were the kind of thoughts I wish I could internalize, though I knew even then – sitting on that couch with the picture of my friend looking down on all of us – that I might never be that person.
So what do you do when you don’t believe in destiny? How do you live a life full of pain when you are convinced that much of it is caused by coincidence or your own flawed actions?
I guess the only thing to do is try not to make the same mistakes over and over again and to forgive yourself eventually for the ones you have made. I think it’s best to treat people who have earned it with love and with kindness and with support. I believe that it’s best to ignore those who wish you ill, but that every once in a while it might serve you well to destroy that person – but only under a very unique kind of circumstance because destroying people takes a lot of effort and not everything or everyone is worth even a bit of that effort.
Someone I adore recently told me about The Four Agreements, a book about how to live what I’d consider to be an emotionally successful life. Agreement number two – Don’t Take Anything Personally – is the one agreement that I find hard to follow. The agreement partially dictates that, “When you are immune to the opinions and the actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” I love the meaning of the words, but internalizing them is hard – and I cannot help but consider whether or not it would be easier for me to do so if I believed with all of my might that maybe I wasn’t actually in control of anything and that my fate has already been written in a cloudy sky filled with stars.