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."