Sunday, August 06, 2006

Am I Happy?

There is an almost predictable routine that occurs when people first discover that I am not religious. Once the initial shock wears off, and they have reconciled themselves to this new reality (at times arriving at this recognition only after endless debate), they inevitably inquire about my emotional well being. Am I happy?, they want to know.

Although it's quite understandable to me why they are asking me this, the question still irritates me quite a bit. I recognize that their inquiry stems from their assumption that the primary motivation for my abandoning observance was because I was unhappy in my old life, and they want to know if my newfound lifestyle has granted me that elusory state. But the question grates on me terribly. Because I know that when they are asking me that, the subtext of their query is really the following: "Deep down, are you really happy living like this? Of course not! You can't possibly be happy living without the beauty of Yiddishkeit; without shabbos; without Torah; without mitzvos. So you might as well just come back to being frum! After all, if you're not happy like this, why stay here?"

Putting aside for now the faulty assumption that pursuing some elusive emotional state is the root of my shift, and ignoring the condescending belief that a person who isn't frum couldn't possibly be truly happy, what particularly infuriates me about this exchange is the hypocrisy of their position: NOW you think that if I'm unhappy I should leave? What about the countless years when I was unhappy being frum?!! Why didn't you suggest it then that I leave because I was unhappy?! It's a load of crap what you're saying. You don't for one second believe that happiness (or its absence) is a valid basis for choosing a path in life. The only reason you're presenting such a notion is because it suits your purposes. Please! Spare me your bullsh*t concern for my happiness.

However, ignoring their unspoken implications, the question still remains in front of me. Am I happy? Truly, I want to know it as much as - nay, more so than they do. Am I happier living my life the way I am now than when I was frum?

When I examine that question under closer scrutiny, I realize that it seems to be a mostly irrelevant one. Yes, being happy is important to me. But comparing how happy I am now to how I might have felt back then is irrelevant because finding happiness is not the reason that I chose this path. It simply wasn't. True, at times, I admit that I may have actually articulated that it was what I was looking for, that I was just so unhappy in that world, so I had to leave, but actually when we examine the situation closer, it becomes obvious that although I expressed it in those terms, there was so much more going on which was directing me towards a different path.

Although it was something I definitely wanted, finding happiness wasn't the goal of my decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy. The reason I left was to get away from all the sources of misery that were an integral part of my life as a chareidi person: The restrictive environment, the demanding (and often meaningless) rituals, the endless gemara learning, the lack of opportunities to feel good about myself, the hypocrisy that I was beginning to detect, the insistence that my life be shaped in a way that I didn't feel right for me, the constraints placed on my relationships, the intellectual dishonesty, the persistent religious one-upmanship, the intense insularity, the requirement to believe so many disproved ideas, the questionable leaders, and on and on. Conversely, my departure from the community was also intended to be able to increase the opportunities where I would have positive experiences and encounters in my life.

The point I want to make is that the reason I left was not because I wanted happiness. It was because I wanted more of those positive things in my life, and less of those negative things. Happiness is a logical byproduct of taking such a step, but it wasn't the goal.

(In looking at the larger picture, although that explains some of the reasons why I left, it's important to consider the circumstances that allowed me to leave: It was only when certain societal pressures were removed that the door opened for me to actually step out of that world. And it was only when I came to understand the deficiencies in the intellectual underpinnings and ideologies of ultra-Orthodoxy that I lost the motivation to endure that unhappy way of life I was previously committed to. I hope to explore the nature of this trifecta in greater depth some time soon.)

Getting back to the question that my interlocutor posed to me, "Am I happy?" my answer would be as follows:

"Am I happy? I hope so, although I admit that I can't be sure of it. Happiness is a difficult thing to gauge. However, more importantly to me, is the fact that in my life as I am currently living it, I have much less of those negative experiences and emotions that were a part and parcel of my life in your world. And at the same time, I am able to partake of so many wonderful and enriching opportunities that your lifestyle prevented me from experiencing. Am I happy? I'm not absolutely sure. But I am sure that I'm glad my life is no longer shaped by the dictates of your world."


Mis-nagid said...

Very interesting.

smoo said...

From the nature of inquiry, we can often understand the nature of the inquirer.

I think it was very astute of you to understand what was behind the question “are you happy?” In their world frumness and happiness go hand in hand and they can not even conceive of anything to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I, too, left the orthodox world, and I am often asked the same question. I believe that my parents suffered seeing me so unhappy and when they inquire "are you happy?" they really hope I am out of my misery and that I found happiness in whichever way I chose, even if it is not their path. I know this applies to many of my chareidi friends from my yeshiva.
I think the generalization that everyone has an agenda, intent or special meaning behind a question is wrong. I am sure many people were aware of your suffering and are just happy to hear that you are happy or at least doing better.

Kyaroko said...

5:43 a.m. eh?

You were up late thinking deep thoughts. Must have been a fun night with fun people and thought-provoking conversation.



respondingtojblogs said...

Since I don't know the people who asked you the question, I can only speak in the general.

The truth is that staying orthodox might very well make one happy. The reality is that leaving the social institutions in which you grew up is not an easy thing. In a way you lose your family, your community, your friends, and a great deal of your social network.

Now whether that should impact one's choice is another question entirely. Is it worth buying into the lie to be happy (assuming that you could be happy in orthodoxy at this point)? Or is it better to see the world for what it is?

How the heck should I know, go watch the Matrix.

LG said...

Hey there. when you get a chance drop me an email and tell me whats going on -- how/what life is for you these days. oh and it would also be nice to hear where your happiness quotient is sitting. but without all the commentary. some of your friends just care about your happiness and nothing deeper. (far less people have agendas than you'd think) i hope you're getting a chance to take on the life you want seriously but without being too serious to miss the fun.
lots of love (am i allowed to say that) from jerusalem

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back.
Very insightful post, but I'm not sure they're being all that hypocritical. Heh, some of them might be sceptics themselves who really want to know if the grass is greener on the other side.

Even those who aren't sceptics might be asking the question not out of hypocrisy. They see frumkeit as a way to olom haboh, or as their duty, with happiness as a byproduct, but it's purely a byproduct and not the main deal.

And then some who ask if you are happy, might really asking a different question-- that is, the question you answered, which is "are you more content now than before?"

Another anon

Dayli said...

Enjoyed this post. Interesting...

My respose to the question "Are you happy?" would be... "Are *you*?"

People often ask you whetehr you're happy because in you, they want to see themsleves. If you're happy now, are you happier than them? If you're not happy does that make them happy? It's really about them, not you.
Then I ask them "are you" and let them talk abotu what they REALLY wanted to in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Your question boils down to "what motivates people to do the things they do".

IMHO, it comes down to two elements, "need" and want", and their interaction as a "need to be wanted", for who we are, not just what we've done or do.

We spend a great deal of effort on this battle between "want" and "need". We often choose career paths or location, size and content of our households based on it, and I think for some orthodoxy creates a framework that is designed, we are led to believe, to guarantee that this basic "need" finds an answer if we "play by the rules".

The desire to quench this thirst motivates us to seek solutions through religion, or to fear leaving religion prematurely, as though religion was a slots machine that is just about to release a fortune after being sufficiently "warmed up" after X decades of learning to understand it.

The frum world is filled with examples of people who played by the rules, and only G-d Himself really knows how much this is so, so that they could achieve the end of a "meaningful life", but it didn't work out as expected. Disappointment sets in. All that investment for what? What is it exactly that is false and has gone wrong? Who is at fault? Is it Torah? Is it the rabbis? Is it our community structure and values? How much of it is our lack of stamina, or our over-sensitivity, our inability to be forgiving of hypocracy or human frailty, or our lack of a broader perspective and our ability to compromise? What is it that we are denying when we turn our backs, seeking meaning elsewhere? What is it that we are affirming? Does G-d smile on our denial of the falseness, or frown? Is G-d speaking to us, or our Yetzer Hara? How should we respond to the disappointment?

I'm still figuring this out. I sense that part of the solution requires changing the ground rules. I do not grant our rabbinic leadership a license to feel and think for me. I deny the role of the community to equate chumra with obligation, custom with halacha. The rabbis have lost my respect - they don't provide the steady hold at the helm, they provide the life sustaining equivalent of technical specifications that blur the distinction between the the ends and means, that distance us from our fellow, that cause us to be judgmental of others before ourselves and to segregate the world into tinier and smaller boxes and compartments of behavior devoid of connection to meaning and life, instead of the musical riff of a life-master, until the whole is so separated from its parts as to become unrecognizable as a system for bringing us closer to G-d.

In excessive concern about appearances, they have caused us to become a community that poses for each other, rather than one that provides the petri dish for becoming closer to G-d IN REALITY, and not just for the sake of congratulating ourselves on the quality of our pose.

I do indeed seek G-d - I believe in G-d deeply, but I can no longer find for myself a communal context to express it in. The practice of it feels like showmanship (how things appear) rather than an offering to G-d (how they really are). Thus, I find more that is holy and in kinship with the average human being, as faulty as he is, as unconcerned about microscopic animals in his water as he may be, than I find in the anal retentive, obsessive compulsive denizen of our yeshivish communities, whose idea of a "chiddush" is a yet another new way to obsess over appearances. At least the average human, if he is also not a deceiver, has the humility to see himself for who he really is, with no need to pose for others to improve the marriage prospects of his children, who sees his faults as something to be overcome TOGETHER with the rest of the human race with whom we hold faults in common. In the presence of such humble people, who search for meaning where it's likely to be found and not in which shoe is put on first each morning, one indeed is more likely to find a path to G-d.

I don't mean to degrade all this way, this would be wrong. But those who can be degraded this way are the ones who supply the flavor these days - they are the "enforcers". The rest have through passivity and fear become buttul b'shishim. We all have our own soul searching to do regarding this and our contribution to it, as I have done in seeking a different path.

Before I end this post, I want to expand on the observation of "need to be wanted". For me, it's an insight into the divine. The phrase contains the components "need" and "want", which interact in profound ways in our lives. There is only one Being that contains the element of pure want, while needing nothing at all, and this is G-d. In our attempt to achieve eternity, which I believe we are hardwired to do (the desire to leave the world better than we left it, to marry and have children, to have a "good name", etc.), we attempt to harness religion to bring us closer to this ideal of resembling G-d's eternal nature. In the process of training ourselves thus, we succeed by negating the fanataticism, impatience and demanding nature of "NEED" in favor of the temperance, patience and quietude of "WANT". This is what religion is supposed to do. But these days, it's not doing that at all, but rather demands the opposite.

We don't control NEED, it controls us via our communal institutions, whose nature is shaped by the most insistently needy amongst us. IT is the master of our fate. IT thinks for us, decides for us, turns over the moral questions, feels for us and lives for us. So then, why does it need us? It's like the Borg in Star Trek - we are merely disposable, nameless cells in the communal meme. And then, it's no wonder people like DH are repelled by it.

This is written sadly, with the sense of a person who has bought a highly recommended consumer product with a good reputation, discovered it is broken, and I have merchant who refuses to make good on the purchase. This, I think, is probably what you are feeling, too, DH. But I still do believe in G-d, and I do believe the Jews are His chosen. I just don't have a community that will welcome me to express this in any longer in a way that feels authentic.

Anonymous said...

Very well written post, as usual. But I'm confused. You say:

'There is an almost predictable routine that occurs when people first discover that I am not religious.'

Then you say

'finding happiness wasn't the goal of my decision to leave ultra-Orthodoxy. '

So have you left Orthodoxy completely, or just ultra-orthodoxy (implying you might still be modern Orthodox) ?

Personally I was happier being (ultra) Orthodox, secure in the conviction that I was one of God's chosen elite with a guaranteed spot in an eternal afterlife. I'd trade being able to wear jeans (or eat a cheeseburger etc) in an instant to get that feeling back. But of course I can't.

Anonymous said...

Methinks you ernste guys gently speaking for sincerity on behalf of his questioners are way off. His questioners are patronizing him, period. In quite the same manner Christian missionaries are when they say thaty'll "ptay for you".

These happy-askers aren't necessarilly too happy themselves but you always feel just a little better when you can assume the role of questioning someone else's happiness for yourself.

I think Daas' analysis is right on and his response to their hypocrasy is right on as well.

If Daas was a shining vision of beatific bliss they wouldn't be asking if he's happy because then his response would demand that (based on what they obviously consider to be important criteris for choosing a life's course) they should leave frumkeit themselves.

They're point is that whatever complaints they can assume he has about his life (they know him so obviously they know what these are) they imply that it comes from being frei. Which is of course bullshit being as (as Daasy explained) he had such issues when he ws frum and nobody gave a damn or recommended that he go fry being as frumkeit was obviously not "making you happy".

The Hedyot said...

Thanks everyone for your great comments.

The Hedyot said...

> So have you left Orthodoxy completely, or just ultra-orthodoxy

By now, I've left it totally. But my above analysis for why I wanted to leave is more apt to be applied to why I left the Ultra-Orthodox world. I spent quite a few years in the MO world, but my decision to leave that society and fully abandon Orthodoxy was not a result of all the negativity, but of other factors conspiring to lead me on my current path.

The Hedyot said...

> I believe that my parents suffered seeing me so unhappy and when they inquire "are you happy?" they really hope I am out of my misery and that I found happiness in whichever way I chose, even if it is not their path. I know this applies to many of my chareidi friends from my yeshiva.

Yes, I admit that there are some who truly simply care about my well being, with no agenda underlying their query. But many do fit my description. It's obvious from the ensuing discussions I've had with my acquaintances that they usually see it as I described. Not everyone, I admit, but it's fairly common in my experience.

The Hedyot said...

LG - I'm well aware that when you and my other good friends inquire about my well being you do so sincerely and wholeheartedly, without any hidden agenda.

Love you too. I'll be in touch.

The Hedyot said...

Anonymous who left that long message -

Very insightful. Sounds like you have a lot to say. Where's your blog?

The Hedyot said...

By the way everyone, there was a great article in a recent issue of New York magazine about happiness. Read it here.

Some Guy said...

Nice post. I also agree with Dayli's comment that people asking these questions may be asking about themselves. It's like when people ask you "how's the job?," there is often a component of "Is your job better than my job?" buried in that question. It's just a normal part of people trying to gauge their position in the social universe. People need to check periodically that -- even if they are not "winning the race" -- at least they have not fallen hopelessly into last place.

B. Spinoza said...

>People need to check periodically that -- even if they are not "winning the race" -- at least they have not fallen hopelessly into last place.

what race? did I miss the starting gun? :)

FrumellasGoneWild said...

I tend to agree with you that it's a little disingenuous of people to ask whether you're happy as if that was important. However, it does speak well of them that they are perhaps even willing to consider that you might be happiER now than formerly (which you more or less concede). My experience with orthodoxy is that happiness is by NO means an important life goal and that those who reject the orthodox lifestyle are often seen to be selfishly, hedonistically opting for happiness. I'm curious about what kinds of societal pressures diminished so as to enable you to take that leap and leave.

Hasidic Rebel said...

Great post. Very interesting topic.

Of course, the question at the heart of this is: let's assume a Charedi lifestyle does indeed make a person happy; is it worth being happy even if that involves being deluded about the facts of life and the world? Or is it more important to recognize the delusions in that lifestyle, ultimately sacrificing the false sense of contentedness?

Avrum. said...

is it worth being happy even if that involves being deluded about the facts of life and the world?

I wonder if it's at all possible to be happy while knowing that you are being deluded about such important things.

reluctant rebel said...

I find what you've said to be quite true in most respects yet I find (and this may be true since I haven't managed to fully break free of the mold yet)that I am not happier. My life has become so much more stressful and Isolated yet I think the one thing which makes it worth it, which you must be reffering to is the sence of purpose, of being true to your own self and living for what you believe in.

Anonymous said...

Reluctant Rebel--there are many people out there in your position and a variety of ways to connect with them so you feel less lonely and isolated. If you don't mind my asking, what is your current situation? Single, married, children?

Anonymous said...

For another good analysis of the subject of Happiness, read Dennis Prager's book, Happiness is a serious Problem.

In short, he argues that happiness should not be an end goal in itself, but an outcome of leading a meaningful, moral, and responsible existence.

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

Hedyot, words worth framing.
- Ben

Anonymous said...

What is happiness? Is it possible to always be happy? How would you feel about your choices if this was your last day on earth (G-d forbid)?