Involuntary Transit Through Evolving Consciousness

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June 14, 2010
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Jonathan Schorsch

I was young once. By my teenage years, as far as I was concerned, I knew everything, what was right and what was wrong. Mine was the only authentic perspective, my perception the only one that saw things as they truly were. Narrowness, conformism, compliance and naïveté surrounded me — and, I promised myself, I would escape it, fight it. I would rectify it all: the world’s unjust distribution of goods and happiness, people’s parochialism, complacency and fears. So I raged. I smashed. Idols fell all around me: religion too timid to change the world, too myopic to challenge evil; a boring, irrelevant yet narcissistic Judaism wallowing in victimization and the past. I swore I would not replicate these mistakes. I yearned for life, energetic struggle, unflinching honesty, the “really real.” I was so much older when I was young, as Eric Burdon and the Animals boasted (or mourned) in a song from the mid-1960s.

I moved on. I left my childhood behind. I suppose I even grew up. Miraculously, I must have wizened somewhat. By my 30s, I had a wife, children, and a career. Some time into my older children’s adolescence, I noticed a pain I could no longer conceal. Someone had entered my workshop and was busily chipping away at much of what I had loved, cared for, and spent so much time and energy building. It was my own children! They seem to have mistaken the treasures that my wife and I had built ourselves for idols: Our environmentally friendly, quasi-hippy ways were deemed aberrant and embarrassing, ineffective and silly; our critique of contemporary capitalism and governmental failures and our search for alternatives were considered cynical; our lack of a television and opposition to much of popular culture were causing our children’s mental and social debilitation. Worse still was the fact that the serious yet easygoing, communal, neo-hasidic Judaism that my wife and I had nurtured as haven and inspiration fit neither into proper conventional Judaism nor rational secularism. We were aberrations — stupid, backward, and superstitious; religious tyrants imposing groundless beliefs on those less powerful. Terachs, indeed.

Our domestic intergenerational conflicts evolved into a routine of sorts. I realized that it was not my idols (ideals) that were being smashed. It was me. I had become the idol; I had become the towering statue of a false and tyrannical dictator. My orientation, values, and beliefs could not be separated from my essence; they were me. I had become the piñata whose breaking would shower confidence, freedom, independence, and legitimacy on my children as they sought their own promised lands. Indeed, only my breaking would bestow such sweet benefits. No wonder every blow to my religiosity, to my priorities, to my tastes felt like a mortal wound. That may have been their aim.

On occasion, usually but for a flitting moment, it dawns on me that I am also — however impossibly, however necessarily — the god who watches the scene in the idol workshop unfold. Detached, I take in the combatants, their claims, their animosities, their furious battles, their casualties. I understand, and empathize with each party. I recognize that in some cases only the impure ashes from the conflagration itself can bring about purification, that the seed shell must be allowed to decay for the seedling to sprout, that the ideals of the parents can become the idols the children must shatter. These lessons, to be found in any number of books, I only really learned and internalized from the toughest teacher of all, experience. Becoming a parent had broken through my narcissistic blindness to perspectives other than my own childish one. My failures had kindled the intelligence of withholding judgment regarding the failures of others. Coming out stronger (sometimes) from difficulties awoke the recognition that unknown powers within could indeed be found and tapped. At good moments, then, my “higher self” is ready, even willing to have my children break me apart for their own sake. After all, who am I to demand absolute respect? Should the life I helped fashion be immune to criticism? To give life lovingly, surely I can survive a little disobedience, some insults, some bitter resentment. Haven’t I already surmounted a thousand little deaths with resurrections of sorts?

Rarely, though, is my less-transcendent self capable of such detachment. With great sadness, I see that the smashing of idols has itself become an idol. American pop culture, modernity in general — in some sense even certain ways of being Jewish — seem fixated on destroying parental idols and ideals, unable or unwilling to sift through what is handed down by previous generations for wisdom, intent on wholly remaking the world anew. The idols may well have deserved reshaping, and the truth is that not all parents parent well, but the conflict has left us a world littered with the shards of countless broken hearts. How difficult it can be to consider the pain we have caused, that has been caused to us, that we continue to cause — and to move forward still.

With time, my children will grow, will become even wiser. They will craft their own ideals. One day, I hope they will recognize, as I have come to learn from the revolving mirror of life in which I periodically glimpse myself — that the clay that forms these new idols and ideals comes from the dust of the shattered old ones, that our unknown inner powers were likely, as not, sown by our parents.

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Jonathan Schorsch is associate professor in the department of religion at Columbia University. His book, Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World, won the Salo Baron Book Prize from the American Academy for Jewish Research.

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