The Role of Sadness

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People in Hungary often comment that I seem very positive. That may be true, but I also carry sadness. The two do not contradict each other. Maybe I tend to keep the sadness to myself, but I don’t run from it; I don’t see it as wrong or defective. Often it helps me see things clearly. There would be a problem if I were stuck in sadness (or in happiness, for that matter), or vacillated abruptly between the two. But that is not how it is. They live side by side.

Sadness comes from the knowledge that things often do not last, and that we ourselves are the ones, at times, who bring them to an end. An angry person blames others for this condition (what is there to be angry about, except that something has been taken away, be it a sandwich or a bit of dignity?), but a sad person does not. (Granted, one can be angry and sad at once, just as one can be happy and sad at once.) Sadness does not pinpoint the blame–or maybe it recognizes a distribution. Most of the time, when things go wrong, it is not one person’s doing alone, but the work of several, or many, or even of generations and longer history. That does not mean there’s no blame at all–often there is, –but rarely can it be limited absolutely to one person, time, or place. Anger is necessary; it sharpens perception and shapes justice. It helps us speak. But it has less room, less possibility, than sadness.

Sadness cannot be absolute, or it congeals into depression, a belief that loss is all there is. Sadness and depression have different lives, different meanings. I do not believe in total loss. Something survives, sometimes things we don’t even see. Sometimes a painful episode leads a person in roundabout ways to new joy. Also, lives are not contained; we affect others in ways we do not know. I remember Hermann Hesse’s story Knulp, where Knulp, walking in a snowstorm, talks to God about how little he has accomplished, and near the end of this long dialogue, just before Knulp stops and lies down, God says, “Look … I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom. In my name, you did silly things and people scoffed at you; I myself was scoffed at in you and loved in you. You are my child and my brother and a part of me. There is nothing you have enjoyed and suffered that I have not enjoyed and suffered with you.” I first read this at age twelve; why has it stayed with me all this time?

 

I took the photo last weekend in Budapest; a friend showed me some lesser-known beautiful buildings, including this.

 

Thoughts and Updates

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I have many ideas for blog posts but have not had much time at home, or even in Szolnok for that matter; I have gone to Budapest three times in the past week alone and will be going again on Friday (for a Hanukkah celebration and Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night, followed by a Shabbat service on Saturday.) We have also had three Saturday working days this fall and have one more to go. So any free time–for writing, friends, duties, biking, thinking, sleeping–has been sparse and precious.

Speaking of writing, two of my most recent essays have been published, one (“Reclaiming Liberty“) in the New England Journal of Higher Education, and the other (“Choosing a College: The Virtues of a Good Misfit“) in Inside Higher Ed. As for the book, here are a few more pictures (thanks to Fruzsi) from the reading at Massolit Books in Budapest on November 18:

People are asking me where they can get a copy in Szolnok; they can do so at the Szkítia-Avantgard könyvesbolt és antikvárium, Baross utca 24. You can’t miss it if you’re on Baross utca and looking out for this (on the northern side of the street):

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As for a Szolnok book event, there will probably be one in January; I will give details when I have them. (The planning is underway.)

Readers in the U.S. may be wondering what I have to say about Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungarian media–as discussed and rebuked in a recent New York Times editorial. At this point there is little I could say without directly repeating others’ points, and I don’t like doing that. First, I keep confidentiality, and second, I like to speak from knowledge and thought, not from a need to say something. The situation is worrisome, not only in itself but because it increases the divide between those who can read news in other languages–or can read between the lines–and those who take government propaganda (and other propaganda) as truth.

But in my daily life I see and hear courage, intelligence, imagination, reflection, sharpness, soul, and wit; slowly I start to understand some of the tensions and sadnesses in Hungary.

Take, for instance, the Saturday working day (which I have criticized before). Few people actually like them, from what I can tell, yet few will say so publicly. For one thing, many like the long weekends that they get in return. Also, if you object to the Saturday working day, you risk being dismissed as a complainer or troublemaker. There’s a widespread assumption that the best way to stop things from getting worse is to put up with them. (This doesn’t apply to everything; I have heard robust complaints about various matters.) People will say, “Well, we do get the long weekends, so it isn’t so bad,” or “Most people prefer to have the long weekends, so this is just the way it is going to be.” But here and there, some people do raise objections; a colleague recently shared an article about how unfair this is on schoolchildren.

My complaint about the Saturday working days (which my school has tried to make as light and bearable as possible) is that they intrude on personal time–and, for even minimally observant Jews, on a sacred day. It seems that the government takes some ownership of people’s private lives. Even though these days “pay back” for extra days on long weekends, the tradeoff is not equal. A shortened weekend–and especially four in a single autumn–means less time at your own disposal, less time for serious things outside of work. Here I am both willing and able to speak up without just repeating what others have said. But the point will be slightly moot (or muted) next year, since we will have two Saturday working days that affect teachers and students. (The third is on August 10, during our summer vacation.) This year, there were six, and they all fell during the school year.

In any case, within this crowded schedule, it has been a rich time. And now I must run.

 

I made some edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

 

Lights Together and Alone

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Last night, Hanukkah began.

Since this holiday commemorates a historical event with no clear heroes (were the Maccabees the virtuous ones? Or were they, as some suggest, religious zealots who used violence to bring other Jews to their way of life?), many seek a modern, general, attractive meaning in it: something about endurance, light in darkness, and the presence of miracles in everyday things. The historical event serves as the ancient background but is usually not the main focus.

Lighting my hanukkiah here in Szolnok for the second year (you can see the wax from last year), or rather, after lighting the shamash and first candle and after getting some sleep, I thought about another possible meaning.

The historical event, much oversimplified here (and tellable in various ways), is this: In the second century BCE, in the time of Antiochus IV, there was an ongoing conflict between the Hellenized Jews of Judea, who had assimilated into Greek culture,  and the Maccabees, who resisted such assimilation. When Antiochus took over the temple and erected a statue of Zeus there–he also ordered pigs to be sacrificed there and forbade circumcision–the Maccabees revolted and succeeded. When rededicating the temple, they sought pure oil to light the menorah, but found only one flask, enough for one day (the rest of the oil had been contaminated). But this one flask, according to legend, ended up lasting eight days. From this miracle arose the festival of lights.

Am I on the side of the Maccabees? The Hellenized Jews? Neither? It is difficult to know, since the events and their contexts are so far away. But I do know that I am part assimilated, part not, in Jewish terms and in general. There is a part of me that does not fit in and never has, a part that fits in with some things and not with others, and a part that participates in the world, learns from others, and does as others do. In my Jewish life specifically, I am both traditional and not; I have a strong Jewish identity and practice, but it is not identical to anyone else’s, nor do I follow all traditional rules.

I can’t take sides inside myself–both the “not fitting” and the participation are essential to me–but on this holiday I can light the candles in honor of both: of that thing that burns and persists in a person, regardless of all dampers, all censure, and of this holiday that millions around the world have celebrated over the centuries, even with different meanings and understandings. And so, Happy Festival of Lights!