Me and the Cool Kids
I occasionally declare that I can’t stand people who think they have their shit together. No one has their shit together. We’re all balanced on a knife’s edge. If it seems we are having all our needs met at any given moment, well, perhaps we are, but that’s not because we’re the tai chi masters of our lives. That’s the pure bounty of grace we are enjoying. When we take it for granted, we think we have our shit together. I wrote about spiritual goofs a few weeks ago. The state of believing you “have it together” is a great big spiritual goof. You are as fragile as a snowflake; trust me.
I have a disparaging term for people who think they’ve got it together. I call them “cool kids.” I can’t suffer cool kids. I really look down on them. I think they’re the most deluded creatures on Earth. Their arrogance offends me.
Recently, I attended an “authentic relating” event here in Portland. These types of events are definitely not geared to cool kids. At one point, a participant shared something very tender and personal with the entire group, and my body tensed up a little with resistance to this person’s semi-public display of vulnerability. A judgment arose in my mind that it “wasn’t appropriate” to be THAT transparent in front of strangers – even a self-selected group of people who had gathered specifically to speak to one another from a place of deep authenticity. Something felt too private to me about what this person had to share. Even though it was compelling and well received by everyone, I still deemed it kind of uncool.
Oops. Did I say “uncool”?
So who’s the cool kid now?
I shared this story recently with my friend Jill, co-creator of the Higher Thought game. She chuckled and remarked, “It’s always ‘mirror, mirror,’ isn’t it?”
I’m Jewish. (I may have mentioned this before.)
I went to a song circle on New Year’s Eve, attended by about ten people. At one point, we went around the circle and each stated a wish for the year to come. A self-identified Palestinian man wished for world peace and a ceasefire in the Gazan war. I silently seconded his wishes.
Throughout the evening, we sang some funny songs and some prayer-type heartful songs (and against my aesthetic objections, the circle even went for “Auld Lang Syne”) and one or two religious-y songs that evoked childlike laughter. One of them was the one that starts with “Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory” which is about the Bible story of Noah. “The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a flood-y flood-y …” etc. When we finished singing it, I spontaneously supplied an original verse that I made up on the spot: “And all other people, in the flood they did churn-y churn-y, and they cried ‘O Lord, you’re being rather stern-y stern-y.’”
People laughed of course.
And I started thinking about how the God I grew up with – the so-called Judeo-Christian God – was a ferocious dispenser of retributive justice, and as vindictive a character as can be found anywhere in literature or in life. Mess with Him and not only do you meet a violent end, but you could be screwed for all eternity. “I am the Lord thy God” is the very first commandment, and God help you if you forget it.
And it also occurred to me that the impulse to exact revenge – and belief in the inherent value of revenge — propels a huge percentage of the human violence in the world, perhaps even all of it.
Dare I say this? Yes I do: For peace loving people, our western Biblical God is a shitty role model. Perhaps even worse than Trump.
A few minutes later, a New Year’s prayer bloomed in my mind from somewhere deep inside me, or from mysterious forces that surround me. I can’t call it a resolution because it’s not a promise to myself that I can fulfill through will power alone. I will need help from somewhere. Hence it is a prayer, not a resolution. (As an agnostic, I pray to ambiguous presences and nebulous “higher powers” with an occasional “Great Spirit” thrown in.) Here is that prayer:
For at least a year’s time, I will never speak nor act from retribution or revenge, not even in the smallest possible ways (like, say, with an ego-defending barbed remark).
This prayer extends only to deeds and words. I did not pray to be spared vindictive thoughts and feelings, only to have the mindfulness and self-control to refrain from acting or speaking from such feelings. My thoughts and emotions can still be whatever happen to be, even violent and furious, so long as I do not permit them outward expression. (I happened to read a passage from Patrick Miller’s The Forgiveness Book a few evenings ago that seems to challenge my prayer to go further: “[D]o not mistake what is habitual for what is natural. Brooding, resenting, feeling bored, and frequently reviewing your laundry list of grumbles may seem like innocent reactions to a cruel world. In fact these are all ways in which your attention wanders away from healing.”)
Little did I know that my prayerful intention would be tested even before the stroke of midnight.
Within the circle, the Palestinian man spoke of his ancestral wounding and how his father had been forced off his land when the Israeli state was established.
When the circle began to break up, a few minutes past 11 p.m., I approached this man and we embraced, and I told him I was sorry for what had happened to his father.
Yes, he said, he needed to speak his heart about that because he too still suffered from the ancestral pain that was passed down to him. His father had come to fear that nothing in life was stable or safe, and, as a result, he, the son, had made various important decisions in his own life that had been heavily negatively impacted by these same fears, even here in America.
I shared with him that my mother had been a Holocaust survivor from Nazi Germany. As an 18-year-old girl, she had, terrified, walked the streets of Berlin during Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass” when the Nazis rampaged through the streets, smashing the windows of all the Jewish businesses. I suggested that perhaps we shared some similar ancestral trauma.
He did not respond to this. Glancing down and away, he spoke of the current war in Gaza, the inhumanity of it, the atrociousness of what the Israeli government is perpetrating on tens of thousands of innocent Gazans, as I nodded and nodded, because I agreed with all he was saying. He added that of course the Holocaust was terrible, and maybe in creating the world’s largest open air prison (in Gaza) the Israelis had been recreating the concentration camps, unconsciously. Though I might have challenged him here on the particulars, I essentially agreed with him about this too and in fact had drawn the same conclusion on my own a while back.
So I just kept nodding and nodding, but it also occurred to me to say, “You know, that’s interesting. My mom and her immediate family escaped the concentration camps, but when I was an adolescent, she placed me in a horribly abusive behavior modification institution, and I’ve always wondered whether that wasn’t some perverse fulfillment of the concentration camp destiny she’d escaped, only to defer it for a generation.”
At this point there were only four of us left in the room: the Palestinian man, his girlfriend, me, and the host of the gathering, who was standing by and listening to us. When I mentioned my abusive “treatment program” experience, the host’s eyes lit up and he said, “Wow, that’s amazing! Something similar happened to me! My mom kicked me out of the house when I was in high school, and her mother had done the same thing to her. The circumstances were different, but still –”
This little exchange made no impression at all on the Palestinian man. He resumed talking about the plight of his people as if there’d been no conversational digression, still glancing away, talking in monotone, recounting details of homes being bombed, children starving, the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and his people’s suffering over the course of decades.
Possibly just to affirm my presence. I said, “One thing that triggered a great deal of pain in me was reading about all the sexual violence of the October 7 Hamas attack, knowing as I do that that sort of depravity and horror has been visited on my people repeatedly for centuries, with the pogroms in Europe, and of course the Holocaust.”
“You should check your news sources,” he countered instantly. “A lot of those reports were exaggerated. Of course I’m against rape, it’s never okay, but Israelis rape too. Israeli soldiers gang raped a 13-year-old Palestinian girl. So I don’t know about the raping –”
“Rape and torture,” I interjected. “And sexual mutilation.”
“Well, I’m not sure there’s hard evidence that there was torture –”
“Hamas made snuff films of what they did.”
“A lot of the initial reports weren’t true. They had to retract the story about the 40 babies being beheaded. I think maybe one baby was shot in the head. I mean, that’s still not okay, even one baby, but …”
He went on to make a case that Israeli atrocities against Palestinians had been “many thousands of times worse” than anything Hamas had ever done. And after all, many Gazan youths have never even known a life other than one lived under occupation, so what else were they supposed to do but join Hamas? People say Israel has a right to defend itself, but Israel has no right to defend itself; it’s an occupying force –
At this point I held up my hand. “This conversation has to stop now,” I said. “I’m feeling very triggered, and I don’t think this is serving any purpose.”
Now, finally, he looked at me full in the face, a tragic martyr’s gleam in his eye.
His girlfriend said to me carefully, “I just want to say … I feel your pain. And — I encourage you to look deeper.”
By now I was very, very angry. I wanted to snap at her, “Maybe you could look deeper too! Is it possible you might be overlooking something? Can you even conceive of that possibility? Mirror, mirror!”
But though my facial expression may have conveyed the sentiment, I remained quiet, maintaining fidelity to my prayer.
The two of them left with no further words exchanged. The host kindly invited me to stay behind, to decompress and talk about what had just happened. He opined that I had done well by not arguing, but simply setting a boundary.
I said, venting my disgust, “It wasn’t even a conversation! When I stated that I felt pain about the October 7 attack, his response was to minimize Hamas’s violence, and just go on to make a case that Israeli violence is worse. But I wasn’t trying to debate with him! I was just stating how I felt. He was talking AT me, not TO me.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t react,” my host repeated.
I was still mad when I drove home about 20 minutes later, and furious long into the night. (What a way to start the new year.) I couldn’t sleep for many hours (although admittedly, that’s not unusual for me).
The guy had said blithely, without even the courage to look me in the eye while saying it, “Israel has no right to defend itself.”
How dare he!
If Israel has no right to defend itself (because, as the guy put it, Israel is an “occupying force,” not a nation state), then it follows that Israel really has no right to exist at all … and where exactly should all the Israeli Jews go then?
He had used the term “genocide” to describe what Israel is doing to the Palestinians now in Gaza. I had not challenged that term, though I could have, technically speaking. I could have pointed out that, for example, Israel is not at war right now with the Palestinians in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority there, so how could he say Israel is committing genocide on the Palestinian people? He was aware that he was speaking to (or rather, talking at) the son of a Holocaust survivor, and that my immediate ancestors were the targets of an explicitly genocidal campaign, the offshoots of which are alive and well in many places throughout the world. In saying that Israel has no right to defend itself, and thus no right to preserve its existence, and that the Jewish people who populate that land now should just – what? – disappear? – was he not advocating genocide himself, signing on implicitly to that historical agenda against my people, the Jews?
I was reminded of the failed negotiations of the year 2000 at Camp David, with U.S. President Clinton, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Barak was earnestly trying to negotiate a two-state solution, beginning with a land agreement that went far beyond anything that ever been “on the table” between the two conflicting parties. But Arafat turned down the deal and made no serious counter proposal. President Clinton was reportedly infuriated by Arafat’s recalcitrance, deeming it a historically disastrous mistake. Arafat retorted, “Do you want to attend my funeral? You want me to be a traitor? Are you serious?”
In other words, if, on behalf of the Palestinian people, Arafat had accepted any deal short of a complete abdication of the Jewish state, he would have been assassinated in short order. And he was probably correct about that. Then, as now (even more so now), a critical mass of the Palestinian people have no interest in coexisting with Israel. And that is at least one major reason why they can’t have peace.
And this is why I’ve never participated in a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Scratch the surface even slightly and there is always this subtext that they want to wipe out Israel, and they feel historically entitled to do so. (To be fair, I don’t think Netanyahu or the rightwing Likud Party of Israel has ever had a genuine interest in a two-state solution either. But it’s worth noting that Likud only regained power in Israel after Barak’s peace negotiations collapsed, with the subsequent election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister.)
This joker I’d just met was the very embodiment of what is preventing peace and ensuring further suffering for Palestinians and Israelis alike, especially Palestinians. What a self-righteous piece of shit! I felt contempt for him, and his girlfriend.
He had had no interest in me at all, no curiosity whatsoever about my perspective or experience; he didn’t see me, didn’t even look me in the eye, cared not a whit about my wounds as he blathered on about his own, and then he’d had the audacity to state that Israel has no right to defend itself, that my people should just roll over and die.
My tribal blood was boiling.
Fundamentally, he had completely dismissed my own right to exist. Just totally objectified me. Turned me into a nonhuman.
Ooh, I hated him. I felt like I wanted to fucking kill him.
Reflecting on it a day or three later, a question surfaced in my mind. Is it possible that, during that unsettling New Year’s Eve interaction, all the Palestinian man had truly wanted was to be heard, and all I’d wanted was to be seen and felt?
And that since we could not give these desired things to each other, we might instead have conceivably wound up killing each other?
I wonder how often that sort of thing plays out in life. People do get awfully mean and vindictive sometimes when they don’t get what they want. (Have you noticed?)
And maybe, actually, we had both wanted EXACTLY the same thing, come to think of it. Maybe his way of feeling seen and felt was to be heard.
We are all so trauma-driven, and one problem with trauma is that we tend to own it. My trauma. Your trauma. But it’s really all our trauma, and just to see that releases some of it, as well as most (if not all) of the attendant shame (which also drives us to madness).
It’s going to be an interesting year if I can keep faith with this prayer, to not speak or act from vengeance at any time. I think I will learn some things.