Nine Days Minus One
A few days ago I bumped into an old friend whom I have not seen for 34 years. He was my high school classmate, and back then we were close friends.
I could not control my tears – not over meeting my friend after all these years, but over the state he was in. Unnaturally thin and jittery, (I shall call him) Michael was clearly a junkie. He had an awkward smile on his face and I saw that we would not be able to have an honest conversation.
He was such a promising student. Bright and creative, shy and gentle, we always thought that Michael would do some great things with his life. Here he stood before me on a street corner nervously rolling a cigarette, shifting eyes, a mere skeleton and specter of the Michael I once knew and admired.
To my question “Where do you live?” he sadly answered, “I don’t have my own place, I move around. Housing in New York is expensive…” “Are you working, earning an income?” “Yes, I’m eking out a living here and there.” I offered help, but knew that Michael would not follow up.
I touched upon some of the deepest beliefs that we shared together, back when we were teenagers in Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway. But Michael was detached. He spoke about the past as if it was not about him.
He was far gone, in a different orbit. Had I tried to hug him he would have recoiled.
I will never forget the Shabbos walk we took together so many years ago, when Michael began sliding. At the time he was trying to convince me to join him in, what he called an innocuous, game of gambling at cards. As we walked down Eastern Parkway he asked if I minded that he lit up a cigarette. Always the gentle soul, Michael was being sensitive to my sentiments about Shabbos. I chose not to answer, and Michael took that as an ok.
As time passed I noticed the visible differences in Michael as he became consumed with the “weed” and his daily routines began to orbit around his next “hit.” Conversations, usually so stimulating, began to dull. His usual clarity and sharp wit became an afterthought. He would spend hours in his basement apartment all alone. He was slipping and slipping fast, in a vicious ruinous cycle.
It was the first time I was ever exposed to the utter wasting of a human being due to drug addiction. Nothing else matters. You look forward to nothing as much as the drug and its effects. “It” becomes your nurturer, your best friend, the one you turn to in times of need, the final recourse when all else fails. Every minute of your waking hours – and even asleep – every decision, every move, is determined by the next “high.”
And then, perhaps worst of all, is the loneliness. A loneliness that I cannot begin to imagine – and one that demonstrates how utterly destructive this “lifestyle” can become – you are all alone with your obsession, with your compulsion, only you and your dark desire. And every time you succumb, the lonelier it gets. At some point the human psyche must snap into a submission to this “new reality” simply to be able to survive and not be overcome by sheer shame and desperation.
Once caught in this mad whirlpool, there seemed no way out for Michael. And then we graduated, each of us going our own way.
Now, 34 years later, he is still controlled by the dark demon within. He lives in world of shadows, seemingly always on the run. Escaping what? Himself above all. Why they call it “substance abuse” seems odd; it’s not abuse of the substance, but of yourself.
What happened to this young man that I knew? And to so many others like him?
— As I am writing these words I realize that they may come across as judgmental or condescending. That is the farthest of my intentions. We all have our vices and ugly corners. We are taught that seeing a fault in another is like looking in a mirror: It is a reflection of our own shortcomings. Michael for me is a mirror image of the dark obsessions that we all are capable of falling into. —
What happened to Michael and what happens to each of us when another force takes control of our lives?
Your inner dignity – what the Kabbalists call Malchus – is damaged.
And that’s why I chose to write about this subject today. We now stand in the Nine Days, the saddest period of the Jewish calendar, due to the destruction of the Holy Temple and other tragedies that took place during these days, culminating with Tisha B’Av (this Sunday) – the saddest day of all, when the Temple actually went up in flames.
Annually this period is honored as a time of mourning and grief over our losses. Tisha b’Av is a 24-hour fast day (beginning at night), the lights are dimmed, we sit on low stools and recite lamentations.
As continuously discussed in this column, we are not simply grieving over past events, but over all forms of destruction in our lives – every form of grief and loss evolves from the rupturing of the bond between spirit and matter that occurred when the Divine presence in the Temple no longer found a “home” in our material universe and was compelled to go into “hiding.”
Each of us has an indispensable soul within, which is the ultimate root of all confidence and sense of purpose. Our convictions, hopes and greatest dreams flow form our inner “malchus’ – a profound sense of dignity and majesty that stems from the Divine image in which we were all created. It is the feeling that “you matter” and you have the power to achieve anything you set your mind to.
In contrast, what is the root of all destruction? The annihilation of malchus – when this dignity is violated.
The Arizal explains why the Fifteenth of Av is the greatest of holidays (“there were no greater holidays for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur”), because its full moon follows and repairs the “destruction” of the “moon” (Malchus) on Tisha b’Av, when the Temple was destroyed. The greatness of the ascent is in direct proportion to the depths of the descent that precedes it.
Looking now at my old friend Michael, meeting him during these Nine Days, I see with my own eyes how his malchus/dignity was destroyed. Destroyed on a conscious level. Once that part of you – your purest element, the one that feeds your sense of self-value – is compromised, it’s just a matter of time that your life begins to spiral downward out of control, in one form or another.
For some it takes on the shape of raw dysfunctionality. Others are creative enough to find ways to remain functional (“functional addicts”) to some extent, and learn how to “cover their tracks” as they maneuver their way day to day. Variations are as numerous as people themselves. Seeing someone use their creative juices – not to mention the energy, time and money wasted – for such machinations is, of course, one of the saddest things to observe. Often arrogance is one of the mechanisms used (usually unintentionally) to cover up low self-esteem (a weak sense of malchus).
The question, however, begs: What could bring someone to compromise their own sense of self-worth? Who in their right mind would allow their inner dignity to be violated? Human nature is such that we would anything to not allow ourselves to be humiliated, let alone to allow our entire dignity to be undermined.
The answer is obvious from the question: At the outset no one ever damages their own malchus/dignity. Any such damage is always initiated by someone outside ourselves: A parent, an educator, an adult – anyone that we may have trusted can hurt us, especially in our most vulnerable and impressionable childhood years.
Not along ago, I conversed with a psychologist who specializes in youth at risk, focusing primarily on kids in the religious Jewish community. I asked him for his experienced opinion on why some young adults break away from the lifestyle and traditions of their own families and communities. None of us are immune to temptations and challenges. In most cases people learn to cope with their vices – some carry them undercover, other carry on dual lives or worse – without a need to break away ostensibly from the larger community. Why then do others make an actual public and pronounced break – they cease to be openly observant or some other manifest expression of changing their lifestyles? Are they simply more honest? Do they have greater temptations than the norm? Is it due to their upbringing? Is it genetic? Do they lack certain coping skills, and if so, why? Or is it perhaps the other way around: They are smarter and actually deny faith due to their philosophical skepticism?
His answer startled me. “First I considered all the factors you mention – honesty, intelligence, family – but I came to realize that they cannot account for most cases and don’t reflect any patterns that point to one cause or another. There are children from excellent families as well as broken ones that remain within the community. The same is with both skeptics and conformists, and the other identifiable categories.
“People are natural social creatures. They gravitate to groups and communities, and in most instances loath total isolation. They crave peer approval. Even non-conformists (which is a minority in any group) need social interaction. Most people, even radical individualists, will usually maintain their social identity, identifying with the communities of their upbringing. In most cases, only a radical jolt to the psyche will cause someone to explicitly break away from their peer group.
“In my experience I am slowly coming to the conclusion that in many of these cases the radical jolt began with some form of sexual molestation, in which the child’s inner dignity was violated. When someone is hurt on that level it defiles the innermost, intimate dimensions of the psyche; it drives the child into silence (out of shame and fear he will not speak about the abuse with parents or teachers), a silence and loneliness that eats away, like a cancer, at the child’s inner dignity.
“In many such instances a child has enough resilience to absorb the blow and come out intact. But in sustained abuse, or if it is a particularly sensitive child, or other unique factors, the violation – and the related shame, silence and loneliness – will jolt the child into another orbit, making him susceptible to further radical changes.
Then, when you add pot or other drugs into the equation – which a young adult may take recreationally; or due to escapism; to relieve the inner anxiety and shame; out of mediocrity and boredom and the search for a high – these drugs diminish natural inhibitions and thus can actually alter human personality, including the need to remain within ones family and community structure.
“So, combine all the above, coupled with hormones and other natural factors – the volatile combination, ignited by the jolting catalyst, can actually cause someone to make the radical jump and abandon their past.
“I know that this is a radical theory, which may be impossible to substantiate, due to the fact that most victims do not acknowledge or may bee unaware of the effects of their own experiences.”
“So, what do you suggest?” I asked the psychologist. “Zero tolerance of any form of abuse in our schools, homes and camps. Absolute and unequivocal action must be taken to not allow any such behavior, and to immediately take action if any such report is made, and not push it under the rug due to ‘inconvenience’ and scandal.”
Whether you agree or disagree with this psychologist’s ideas, it definitely provides food for thought. Obviously, great care has to be taken not to stereotype anyone and try to over generalize and develop formulas without regarding the complexities of life. Not everything can and needs to be explained. Yet, due to the serious crisis – and so many beautiful souls adrift – we are behooved to look into these issues and see what preventive medicine can be employed in our homes and schools, and what interventions need to be immediately deployed once there is a violation.
I know that this is a heavy – and terribly sad – topic. But when else to speak about it then in the Nine Days…
The lesson of these days teaches us the terrible consequences of malchus/dignity violated. But awareness of the problem is half its cure: It also instructs us how to repair the rupture: Just as dignity (malchus) on earth was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, we have the power of the full moon on the Fifteenth of Menachem Av to restore dignity, and with even greater intensity then the original.
For the sake of our children and their future we need to address these issues head-on, and come up with both preemptive actions as well as appropriate methods to rebuild dignity once it was compromised.
Parents and educators must know that we carry great responsibility and power – with life and death consequences – in cultivating and nurturing the dignity and souls of our children. And this begins not when the child is twenty, ten, or even two years old. It begins at the moment of birth, and even at the moment of conception.
We live in a profoundly insecure world; malchus/dignity is the most lacking dimension. Even if we may have plenty of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, love, discipline, compassion, endurance, humility and bonding (the first nine sefirot) – they are only nine, as in the Ninth of Av; without the tenth – and most important – dimension, we are missing the foundation of all life: inner security, self-worth and dignity that makes all the other nine worth their weight and imbues us with the confidence to use our nine faculties with conviction and sense of urgency and destiny.
Now the challenge is: How do I convey this to my friend Michael and to so many others?
I am open to any ideas.