Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Optical Delusion

A good friend looked at me in surprise recently after I told a story, and shook her head.

"You're delusional..." she said, as if it had just occurred to her, as if in the last few years since I've known her, she might have thought otherwise.

I laughed. "Of course I am," I said. "You didn't know that?"

Delusion has been on my mind since then, what it means, if I'm more or less delusional than most, if it's a problem. Reality is subjective, isn't it? Even a video camera or a tape recorder can only account for what is said and done, not what is thought. That thought recorder I want isn't on the market, not yet. And we all come at things from our own self, don't we? 'Selfish' and 'self-centered' have become pejorative terms, but that strikes me as strange since, of course, by our very nature we have ourselves to worry about most. To want what we want regardless of others' realities is, I suppose, always a delusion.

The idea of my delusion and selfishness haunts me most on Yom Kippur, the holiest most neurotic day of the year for Jews who opt in to the Day of Atonement. We are told to ask for forgiveness from others, to forgive, but as I sit in temple, wracking and sorting, I can never figure who is to blame in any of the situations I think to conjure. I can always both defend my actions and see the other side, I just can't figure out who is right. Then, I realize, right is different for everybody, and we should all just be able to say, "I'm sorry for having hurt you, I didn't mean to," and move on.

But it's not that easy. With husbands, children, family and friends, we most often say things or act based on who we are, and someone else's condemnation or disagreement makes us feel bad about who we are. Easier, then, to be angry at them rather than yourself, 'cause you can always get rid of them, not so easy to get rid of yourself. Even drinking or drugs don't do the trick as it turns out.

As she always does so beautifully, the rabbi provoked thought on how to think about this subject just before setting us to meditate on our transgressions. She invoked Albert Einstein, arguably one of the smartest Jews ever, a guy who, if living, would definitely get a stream of gold stars. Mr. Einstein, it turns out, explained my delusion, even made it universal. This is what he said:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Nice. True. Hard. As I sat, crushed in a pew between other delusional prisoners trying to pray to a better path, it made so much sense. Of course we need to get outside ourselves as the center of the universe and embrace others. But how do we know what others want, what they think, when they so often stay silent, or speak without really communicating, when they don't tell us until it's too late? As a long-time journalist and as an inquisitive person, I know to ask questions, but still, often, even if I remember to step outside myself and ask, I know I'm not getting the true answer. I resort, then, without a true perspective of the other, to come from my own perspective, a strategy that so often gets me into trouble. There seems no winning.

A psychiatrist I saw for a bit in a crisis looked at me with sad, sympathetic eyes one day as I got up to leave. I can't remember what particular comment of mine prompted it, but she said to me, hand to her chin in proper psychiatric stance, "Do you think everyone thinks like you do?"

I laughed and thought about it for a minute before answering. "You know, I guess I do. I just think sometimes they don't admit it," I said.

I never got her exact thoughts on my response. She probably thought, like my friend does, that I am delusional, that I am self-centered. But isn't that kind of what you have to think to be a writer, to imagine anyone might relate to your words? Aren't there universal truths?

We are told to "do unto others as you would have done unto you..." but I've said for years, usually after an intractable argument with someone I care about, that that's not what people want. The saying should go, "Do unto others as they would have themselves done unto." But how the hell do you know? Optical delusion seems, sometimes, the only way, a prison to which we are permanently bound.

Take a friend whose seemingly great relationship broke up recently. He sat in my kitchen and shook his head about the break-up, confused. "I mean, how do you stay with someone who just cries all the time?"

"Well, why was she crying?" I asked.

"I don't know, she wouldn't tell me. She expected me to know, and to know how to fix it."

I sighed. Sad. We all want to find that special someone with the crystal ball instead of searching inside our own consciousness. Seems so much easier, right?

Well, another Day of Atonement done, another fast begun and broken and I seem no closer to an answer, just filled with more questions, ones I will spend the coming year thinking about but not having figured so I'll have a new set of situations to atone for next year. I'll try to do better. I guess that's all I can do.

I was reminded at day's end, cleaning up from the dream buffet of foods I'd shared with good friends, of running into a woman who I think sometimes reads this blog, in the morning, on my way to temple. We said hearty hellos but didn't slow down as we neared one another.

"Are you having a good day?" I asked hopefully as I passed.

Behind me already, moving forward into it, she answered: "Trying..."

I laughed. "That's good," I said, "that's all you can do."

I'm not sure if she said it because she wanted a gold star or because, more likely, it was just true. Either way, though, she'll get a gold star, a big one.

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