Here’s my situation. I’m Jewish but was raised non-observant, and then ten years ago I went to Isreal and sort of fell in love with the religious practice and started becoming observant. I’ve been pretty religious for about eight years and it has been the framework for pretty much my entire life during that time, which was especially important as I recovered from my eating disorder because it was basically a new set of rules to follow.
Now, for various reasons, I’m not sure I want to do it anymore. I’m not sure it’s a good fit, and I feel like other things are becoming more important to me. But I’m afraid to stop because 1) what will God think? And 2) what will other people think? I have many religious friends an I worry that they will judge me if I leave. I also hate calling attention to myself and change will do that. But I don’t want to be a prisoner of other people’s judgments.
So, how do you let yourself change in big ways without worrying what other people will think?
I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the Rabbi and the Roman, but it goes a little something like this.
Many centuries ago in the land of Israel, a rabbi was returning home from a long day of studying the Torah. It was later than usual, and as he walked home the sun set. He was working hard to memorize the Torah and was lost so deep in thought that he took the left fork instead of the right when the path split. Instead of nearing home, he ended up by a Roman outpost.
“Who goes there?” boomed a deep voice in the dark, shaking him from his thoughts. Confused, the rabbi tried to figure out who this was at his home.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the voice called again as the Roman centurion now stepped into view.
The rabbi quickly realized the mistake that he must have made. Instead of answering the centurion’s questions, he replied, “How much are you paid to stand here every day?”
“Three denari,” replied the centurion, confused. “What does this matter to you?”
“I see,” said the rabbi. “I will pay you twice as much to stand in front of my door and ask me the same questions every single day.”
I thought of this story immediately when I read your letter. I actually think of it a lot, for myself, when I’m caught up in some kind of swirling drama in my head. Most recently it was about a certain person who has “unfollowed” me on social media, and although I know it’s completely ridiculous, I can’t seem to shake my perseveration. I’ve been making up some wild stories in my head about why this happened and what it means. I mean, I get “unfollowed” all day long by who knows how many people—online and in real life—and it doesn’t bother me, but this person is the one that matters? It’s easy to just scoff at it and say, That’s just stupid, Laura, knock it off!, but there’s a deep reason this freaks me out and there’s a deep reason behind you asking these questions to me. The reason is as old as time and it lives inside our deepest wound.
Somewhere, sometime, we left ourselves because we learned that we—in and of ourselves—were not safe or solid enough ground. We believed we could not trust ourselves or our instincts. And so we gave our power away to people or things (I call them false Gods) who we believed knew more, knew better, knew.
I too developed an eating disorder in my late teens, just before college, when everything in my life felt shaky. It was a way to exact control when everything felt out of control. The part of your letter that stands out the most to me is when you said that finding Judaism was important for you because it was basically a new set of rules to follow. Read: tell me what to do and who I am so I don’t have to feel the discomfort of figuring that out for myself. BK, what you want—what your soul wants and is asking for now—is not a set of rules. It wants you to go through the messy, wonderful, painful process of finding your own compass. Of figuring out the questions the Roman asked the rabbi: Who are you and what are you doing here?
The reason I said this story grounds me when I start spinning is that, when I ask those questions of myself, I can very quickly start to narrow down who I am NOT and what I am most certainly NOT doing here. For example:
- I am not what someone who doesn’t even know me says I am.
- I am not here to get people to like me.
- I am not here to win the favor of this one person.
- I am not here to be popular.
- I am not here to be followed on social media.
And then I can start to turn toward who I am and what I am here to do:
- I am a mother.
- I am a writer.
- I am here to love my people.
- I am a child of God.
Now, I suspect much of your fear comes from not having the answers to those questions just yet. If you’re not “religious” and following the rules then who the hell are you and where do you belong? It’s okay if you don’t know, but I have a hunch that you have some ideas (even if the extent of your knowing right now is simply: not this). It is worth spending as much time as it takes to answer these questions. It is worth setting yourself out into the unknown with all those open ended questions and perceived judgments and confusions because I am pretty damn sure at the end of your days you do not want to be a girl who just followed the rules that were set out for her.
You asked what God will think. The God I live by doesn’t want you to blindly follow rules. The God I understand is the love that never leaves, no matter what. And She has a special soft spot for those who get lost. Do you want to know what my favorite words from the Bible are, ever? They’re from Luke and they say, You are always with me and everything I have is yours. They’re from the parable of the lost son if you want to look it up. I love those words because it means that I cannot lose God’s love. God’s love is in me, as tacit as my own bones, forever. Period. I heard a wise person say that religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for those who’ve already been there. Let yourself be spiritual. You can breathe there knowing you can’t get kicked out, no matter what.
As for letting yourself change in big ways, you just have to stop resisting the tide. You’re changing every day; we all are. You have been moving in this direction all your life and probably before then. Resisting it is futile. When people resist their changes, it doesn’t keep them from changing; it just transmutes the changes so they end up coming out sideways in the shapes of things like rage, hatred, and judgment.
Regarding your worry about what people will say, I’ll let you in on a little something: people will judge you no matter what you do. I was at dinner with a couple girlfriends the other night and we were talking about a friend who is afraid to buy a house big enough for her very large family, even though they have the money, because she’s worried what people will say. As in, Who am I to have the money to buy this house? The irony is we were talking about how silly that is—we were judging her decision not to buy a bigger house! We all get judged, all day, for everything. So you may as well start to live a life you’re good with, that feels really aligned and congruent to who you actually are if that’s the case—right? Otherwise, we just become human ping pong balls, bouncing all over the place at the whim of this or that person’s opinion. I've done it, it's exhausting and pointless.
I am so glad you’re at this point. It’s the beginning of something important. The best parts of my life have come from an unfortunate realization that I didn’t belong where I was any longer. You may not have answers to the Roman’s questions for a while, and that’s okay. But if you set out on this new path, eventually you will. And that knowing will be so much sweeter than any answers a False God could give you. It will be the answers given by the sacred, ancient you.
P.S. Here’s a poem I wrote about the sacred, ancient you.