Growing Pains

By: Etai Shuchatowitz

They say never use a quote to start off an essay. It’s a cheap device used when the writer has nothing interesting to say about a topic and so allows a poet to eloquently make his points for him. It’s a space-filler that doesn’t look like the cop-out it is. It’s a cliché that adds a thin coat of intellectualism to hide the bullshit the writer is about to spin on a subject he’s clearly not cut out to discuss. Especially if it’s an essay trying to define an esoteric concept.


But, this is my essay. So, I’m gonna do what I want.


“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke


The flower sat on the table in need of nutrients. If nobody would take care of it, it wouldn’t grow. It would die.


“You all made a tremendous decision.”


I stared straight ahead listening intently, totally and completely confused. I frequently feel this way. Like I live in a perpetual state of unknowing. But, today was different. Today was a special kind of confusion. Most of the time Confusion resides exclusively in my head and is able to hide himself from the outside world. But today, he was coming out and showing himself off as if he finally had something to prove.


Somebody needed to help this flower.


“Don’t worry, you will grow this year,” I heard from the front of the room. I nodded as if I had some idea what the hell he was talking about.


It was the first day of yeshiva in a new place full of new Jewish faces. I knew a few people. Those I didn’t looked so similar, it made the whole experience so much worse. Years of inbreeding have not done us any favors.


A few things to know about me – I’m one of those over-worriers. The kind of guy who looks at the minutiae trying to find meaning in it all. Helplessly hoping that maybe if I think about these things long enough, I’ll actually figure something out. I’m confused about my role in the vast, ever expansive universe (if in fact a role exists). I think about God. I think about the past. And I live in my head way more than I live out of it.


Why did nobody care about this flower?


I looked around the room hoping to find somebody looking like me.


Nobody did. Everybody looked so excited. They weren’t scared. They weren’t confused. They didn’t have all of these questions about the future that bogged them down making it hard to think about anything else. They just…were. They were all going to grow this year and looked excited to do so. It all looked so pleasant.


“This growth will not be easy. It will require work. But you can and will do it. You will grow.” The Rabbi continued talking this way, and after awhile I started to tune him out.


What on earth does that mean, I’m going to grow this year? He spoke as if he, in his infinite wisdom of forty some odd years on this earth, had cracked the secrets of the universe and was imparting his wisdom to a group of excited teenagers. To grow implies an upwards trajectory. It implies that he knows where we’re all supposed to be headed and now it’s just a question of how hard we’re willing to work to get there.


“Now, let’s go have a great year.” He stepped down from the podium, leaving the flower to sit there, unappreciated. He had a big smile on his face. I tried to smile back, but it just wouldn’t come. It was probably a good thing too because when I try to smile, it…let’s just say when I put on a smile people think about hiding their children.


I walked away thinking about what he just said.


What did he mean when he said I was going to grow? People who get taller grow. Stocks that increase grow. People who change their mind about religion, or even change their mind about anything, don’t grow.


So, what does it mean to grow? It means…nothing! It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. It’s a catcall that people use when they don’t know what else to say. When they want to sound inspiring, but they don’t have the language to actually inspire. They use words like grow as smoke and mirrors to cover their thoughts in meaningless idioms hoping that the nice language will distract you for long enough, you don’t see the rabbit hiding inside the hat.


I had come to yeshiva to try and figure things out. I thought it would be good to take a year to think about God, my role in the universe and all of the questions I already think about. But without distractions. Without petty school work or real responsibilities. But I was never hoping to “grow.”


So, now that I finally knew the stated objective of the year, I had no idea what I was in for.


It was hard at first. Ideas were being shoved down my throat and I was trying to reject them, but they just kept getting repeated. And I didn’t have friends. I kept trying to smile, but we all know how that ends up for me. And it was hard. It required work.


But about a month-and-a-half into the year, something amazing happened. I hate to use the word amazing because it doesn’t really mean anything, and once you use it what you say afterwards better be really special. I’m using it anyways because I think it sounds nice.


There’s a famous Rabbi in the Chasidus movement named Rebbe Nachman. His parents died when he was young leaving him orphaned and he was very depressed for much of his life. As a result he preached living a life without useless intellectualizing and instead just having simple faith.


Now I don’t fully agree with that. I think a complex life is sometimes something to be appreciated in its beauty. If we were meant to live simply then we’d be flowers that grow. But, we’re not. We’re human beings who change. We change our minds, our clothes, our taste in music. And, hopefully our ability to smile. But, at the same time, I find it amazing.


Yet there’s something amazing about letting go. About just getting swept up in a tidal wave of feeling and just riding it through. Now I know how that sounds. It sounds like brainwash. It sounds like I joined a cult. And maybe I did. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. The most important thing to me though is that I don’t care.


Because I found people whom I like spending time with. I found people who make me feel significant even in the face of logical insignificance. And being inside of this, maybe cult, is…the complete opposite of suffocating. There are people on the inside who make me feel at home. People who make me think. People who can, for lack of a non-cliched term, nurture me. And for somebody who keeps second-guessing and judging himself for being such a worthless nothing trapped in a meaningless vast universe that doesn’t give a crap about him, it’s nice to find people who disagree.


It’s not like I don’t think about God and the past and the future and, what the hell, this really weird thing we call human existence is. It’s not like I’m not troubled by my own insecurities and fear of failure, and that I’ll never find happiness, whatever that means. And that everybody else around me is doing better than I am. And, that I’m so full of my own bullshit that I think it’s okay to start off an essay with a cheap poetic quote as long as I call myself out on it.


But I also don’t. I accept that I found something I find cool. I allow myself to close my eyes and listen to the peaceful waves carry me. I don’t want to look back. I don’t want to look forward. I just want to enjoy this, whatever this is. And I trust that someday – maybe no time soon, maybe not for many years, maybe not for decades – but someday, I’ll find my answers.


A month later, the flower, the one that had been left so sad and lonely, grew. Somebody finally took care of it allowing it to blossom from a small seedling into a beautiful spring form. It came closer to being appreciated for itself. Isn’t that amazing?


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