Wednesday, December 22, 2010

dwelling in despair

"We don't have to dwell in despair," she said. "We get one life, that we know of, and do we want to dwell in despair, or do we want to laugh and create and love and carry on?"

I'm sorry. I don't speak this language. And I'm not sure I can learn it either.

It's not what I was taught at all.

I was taught that we do have to dwell in despair. That the problem is that people don't take the despair seriously enough. That if we don't immerse in it, no one will remember it. And then where would we be? According to this argument, articulated best by Mrs Tzaddik (not the tzaddik himself, who would never have put it this way) — according to this argument, it all boils down to two words, and you can guess what they are:

1) Holocaust
2) Responsibility
3) Holocaust

Actually, there's also:

4) Inquisition, Spanish

which is tied to the

5) Reconquista and the
6) Expulsion and
7) Holocaust ...

Ah, you see what happens? The words start just rolling off the tongue, and there's this snowball effect — the despair doesn't diminish. No. It accumulates. The more you think, the more there is of it.

The tzaddik put it differently. Of course he would.

There are fragments of lives cut short out there — fragments that have been dispersed throughout the globe. And it is our job to bring those fragments back. Piece them together. And send them off to where they need to be. This is, after all, what the Shekhinah is after as well, is it not?

He wasn't about keeping all those shards themselves. No. He knew that someone out there wanted them back. This is the kind of Collector that he was.

Collect the fragments.
Piece the bits together.
Discover their history.
Find their rightful place.
Return them.

All those bits of junk! Every bit of junk — that was his task. Piece by piece, putting the world aright.

So, yeah, it was dwelling in despair. He'd piece the fragments together. And she'd drive home the despair.

"Lest we forget!" she would say. "Lest the world forget." All the wrongdoings of planet earth were hers to remember, remind others — and teach them to change their ways. And that if each person did his part ... But it begins with immersing in despair.

It wasn't personal, really. Or maybe it's all personal.

Dwelling in despair was just something that had to be done. And so they did it, and did it right. They created a Dwelling of Despair. A museum to bring all the bits and pieces together. Not a Holocaust Museum. No, not that at all. For the Holocaust itself is only another set of fragments — but there's so much more than that.

So. I was raised in such a way that the point was not to laugh and love and carry on. The point was to collect the fragments and help put them back together. And ship them back wherever it was that they belong.

Think of it like working at the Post Office. There's always more. And your work is never done. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.


  1. dwelling by any other name is . . .

  2. After sitting with this one for several weeks, I'm just going to have to give up and ask:

    Which part of believing you can do some good by collecting the bits and pieces of junk, putting them back together, learning their stories, and returning them is not optimism of the most profound kind?

    And which part of devoting yourself to teaching malleable young minds some of the most complex and important subjects out there, despite all the bureaucratic unpleasantries and pedagogical conundrums, is not optimism?

  3. Oo, Erin's gotcha. Eagerly awaiting the answer to that one.

  4. Ah, the teaching of malleable young minds! One of the great pleasures of life ... right up until you read their papers. Not all, of course. But it's those papers that send me spiraling down into despair more than any other aspect of my own personal experience. Even the bureaucracy pales in the face of poorly written papers...

  5. I'm with you on that. My version of it is trying to make sense of the writing I see in the corporate world, where many brilliant people who are wildly successful in their areas are disastrous with the written word. I'm not talking about typos and punctuation mistakes or even those grammatical details that confuse many people--I'm talking about sentences that are so inside-out and backwards that their meanings cannot be divined with any amount of effort. I realize that writing is not everybody's gift, but it's astonishing to me how few people have even basic competency.

  6. Student (to prof): When I go to work at IBM they won't give a shit how I write.

    IBM Rep (to same prof): Can't you get these students to learn to write a decent sentence? Our documentation is incomprehensible.