He looks so different. And yet just the same.
His clothes are all done up, and his hair’s neatly cropped, and he’s got a beard. Eight years ago, it was all the opposite; his clothes in disarray, his hair wild and longer, and no beard.
But that energy is still there, the irrepressible happiness and positivity just shining forth. An energy that beams from his face as if it has nowhere else to go but towards whoever it’s aimed at.
Right now it’s aimed at me, eight years after I last saw him. He’s grinning and smiling and gives me a huge bear hug. He missed me, he tells me. It’s so good, so good to see me. Oh my gosh, who would have thought we’d randomly run into each other at the same yeshiva we both went to, the same place we last saw each other eight years ago.
He starts to tell me about his life, and although somehow he still has the same energy, I can see it focused, deeper, more serious.
“Yeah dude, it was a hard time. I’m clean now, you know, that’s why I’m here, I want to help others that had the same problems.”
“Yeah, oh man, life was crazy,” he says, his voice starting to rush into itself, “You remember, right? How much I drank? Man, that was just the beginning, I was, I am, an alcoholic. I did pills, man, I was super depressed. And then I had this wakeup call when I tried killing myself. Yeah, drank a ton, then took Xanax, Klonopin, Oxy, smoked a bunch, then drank some more. Somehow the next day I woke up alive. I drove home, can you believe that? Every doctor I spoke to said I was a miracle, I should be dead.”
My head is reeling. Him? My friend? I mean, he drank a lot, but so did I back then. We were just having fun, weren’t we? He was funny, he was a riot, was he really… could it be?
“And that was five years ago, man. Been clean ever since. But that’s just the beginning, man. A year and a half ago, I wanted to kill myself again. I told my psychiatrist, and he told me to go straight to a mental hospital. So I checked myself in that day. That day. And I found out I was bipolar. When I got out, I found out I lost my job. And my fiance told me she was pregnant, and it wasn’t mine.”
“Yeah, it was rough, but you know what? I realized something in the hospital. I realized I wanted to help people. I needed a mission, I couldn’t keep on like this, even sober. I needed to live my life, you know? So that’s why I moved to Israel. And now I’m studying to be a drug and alcohol counselor. It’s amazing.”
It really is amazing. He looks so… so sober. In an internal way. Focused on a mission, full of energy to make his life better.
But… for eight years, we were out of touch, and all this was happening. All this. The addictions, the suicide attempt, the hospital… and I had no idea.
“Elad, I have an article I want to publish. But I’m not sure. Can you look at it?”
I’m on Facebook, and I’m speaking to one of the writers of this site I run. She’s one of the most positive, happiest, full-of-good-energy people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She oozes love.
She sends me the draft.
It’s about a time she was raped. It tells it in detail, in a way that is somehow both hidden and revealed so we know exactly what happened.
It’s one of the most painful things I ever read, partly because of its rawness, but mostly because this is my friend, and I had no idea what had happened to her until this very moment.
I had no idea.
We’re drinking. It’s a farbrengen, a chassidic practice of sitting at a table and pushing each other to a higher spiritual level by focusing specifically on the spiritual. This particular farbrengen has gotten very personal, very real. It’s what would eventually lead me to write an article telling all newly religious Jews that it is their job to rebel against orthodoxy.
We’re talking about the pain we’ve had in joining this new world, this strange community that sold us on its beauty, then encouraged us to join up, then brought us into their actual homes, where so many would only accept us if we fell into line. This wasn’t the life we chose, we say.
A rabbi is with us, someone who had randomly decided to join us. He is listening, and he is nodding. He grew up religious, but he understands us, he sympathizes.
I’m not sure what we said to set him off but all of a sudden he looks at us, and he says, “You know, I was abused.”
We look at him in silence. We have all risen to heights unimagined, and somehow high up here, in the world of spirituality, something brutally true is entering our consciousnesses.
“Yes… my teacher. When I was young.”
Sexual abuse it was, he says. This thing that I had heard about, that some of my friends had told me was an issue in this community. But with this person, I never suspected it.
“Yeah, I don’t tell people because I’ve moved on. Why focus on it? But I’m telling you because I want you to know that this world isn’t perfect, but it’s worth investing in. I went through it, and here I am still. I care with all my heart about it.”
But all I can think is that this is… this is a rabbi. This is someone I look up to, someone that no one would suspect had gone through this, and he doesn’t give anyone cause to think it.
When I call him the next day, I ask him if he would want to write about it maybe, to help spread the word. He makes it clear that was a one time confession, that he won’t be sharing it with anyone in a public setting, that it was just for us.
I had no idea. But even more: no one will know.
No one will ever know.
We live in a world full of secrets, full of darkness hidden away behind doors that are blinded by the light of life. All around us, there are secret trials, hidden pains, people who seem fine but who are going through perhaps the hardest things we can imagine.
In other words, the people around you, you have no idea what they might be going through.
You don’t know, and you will never know, the full extent of the pain that surrounds you.
This is a world, unfortunately, where many people are afraid to open up. Afraid to say just how much they’ve gone through, as important as it is to share their truths and their pains.
This is important. Important for us. Important for how we live. Important for how we treat others.
Every day, we are interacting with people, we are dealing with them, and every word we use, every interaction, is an opportunity to shower people with love, or at least acceptance.
Whether it is online, offline, in a friendship, or someone we truly cannot stand. There is a person there who has experienced things we cannot imagine, there is a story there that is untold. There is trauma we are not aware of, pain we will never know.
And so we must treat every person like the sparks of light they are. Because of the darkness they may hold.
Because of the reality that almost everyone is carrying a struggle, just as we are. A whole complex slew of emotional baggage that deserves to be respected and uplifted, even if we are not – because we are not – aware of it. Because it could be anyone. Because it could be your closest friend or your biggest foe. Because life, and each person, is so much more than you see.
Love is not an object to be used for our happiness. It’s an opportunity that exists at every second to be lived, acted upon. And every person is waiting for us to gift them with it.