When the Greeks took over Judea a few thousand years ago, they were very into sports. Just as today, men throwing things and fighting each other determined who was cool, popular, and deserving of sponsorships.
Naturally, the Jews wanted to fit in with the Greeks and be athletic and cool, so they built a stadium to train and compete.
The thing is the Greeks competed naked. And by Greeks, I mean Greek men. This was problematic for Jewish men who wanted to compete because, well, it was rather obvious you were Jewish. You couldn’t hide your circumcision which I guess was a thing you hid in other circumstances; I don’t know I wasn’t there. All I know is (TW) to fit in and compete at the same level as the Greeks, Jewish men reversed their circumcisions. This was a few hundred years BCE, so it was not a pleasant procedure.
(Fact check me: this is in the book of Maccabees. Also, you can Google Epispasm, but I do not recommend it.)
It may sound insane to us today until we realize we are the same: Willing to do just about anything to belong, be liked, and fit in.
I am not immune to it either. The “your silence is deafening” memes going around hit me too hard sometimes. Still, there are moments when silence is complacency and there are moments when silence speaks volumes more than words ever could. Wisdom is knowing the difference.
I’m trying to find the unsubscribe button from all this, but the fact is sometimes the heat from the dumpster fire we’ve created is warm and I don’t mind basking in a bit (that is to say, sometimes I like Instagram). But we need boundaries. I need boundaries. And there are certain topics where I am not interested in public debate or opinion.
I never thought of myself as an advocate of the “sit and wait to see what happens” approach, finding it both lazy and a convenient way of abdicating responsibility for your role in things. But I’m changing my stance. Some things are truly unavoidable, unmovable, unchangeable, and cannot or will not be fixed or made better by our involvement.
It seems to me we are better off accepting that reality and our own powerlessness to do anything about it than we are nursing a fantasy that we can save the world, especially when the world doesn’t appear to want to be saved.
We’re better off being deliberate about where (and with whom and what) we spend our time. What causes are worth our efforts. What efforts are worth our energy.
Sometimes taking a stand is futile. The Judaean Jews would have gained nothing by trying to win a Greek game using Jewish rules. You can’t. You have to adopt the Greek Rules.
Sometimes that’s ok. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.
In those moments, like now, when it feels like we don’t have much of a choice but to let the ignorant and angry battle it out in a contest of idiocracy, I reach for art.
Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s dance.
Most of the time, for me, it’s books.
Those who are unmoved by art frighten me. If you can’t reach inside to find that part of you that gets touched by your humanity, you won’t see the humanity in anyone else. It starts with you. And when we harden – not strengthen, but harden – we lose our soul. The good parts. The parts that are beautiful and complicated and don’t have easy answers.
When enough people lose their souls humanity regresses into this disgusting smoke show of posturing and evil we appear to exist in now. Ironically, the longing to fit into a group that will never approve of you is the same quality that will save you once you find the people who don’t demand you change for them.
That’s what the Jewish Men of the Hellenistic era never got. People who accepted them. So instead, they changed themselves – literally. We will do just about anything to belong and connect.
It’s in the connection between each other that we find the will to live. And when I can’t find that connection in people around me, I find it where those who’ve come before us wrote it down and left us notes.
So many brilliant thinkers by the end of their tenure on this earth saw what I think a lot of us see: What the @#$%.
Reading James Baldwin’s later work will break your heart. Mark Twain turned cynical. Even Kurt Vonnegut managed to look around and go, what the @#$%. Glenn Loury wrote a piece 40 years ago that might as well have been written this week.
In A Man Without a Country, which is as depressing as it is hopeful, Vonnegut wrote, “I put my big question about life to my son the pediatrician. Dr. Vonnegut said this to his doddering old dad: ‘Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.'”
I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me in that there isn’t much I can do that will effectively change this confederacy of dunces we appear to have built.
But I can help us see each other. And I hope, for your sake and mine, we start to see ourselves.
Let the dunces to their own devices and we will continue to do our work of helping each other get through this thing, whatever it is.
Happy New Year.