Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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The Fast of the Apostate

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION

Depression tried to kill me. I survived! Let’s eat!

Speaking from the depths of a severe depressive episode, this is likely to be a shorter blog post than most of mine. I feel driven, though, to pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the last few days.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

Tuesday 15th July was a notable day for several reasons. It was the day that I had a second interview for a job that I really wanted (and didn’t get). It was also the Fast of Tammuz, a day in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of the saddest three-week period in the year. On that day, Jews across the world commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 69CE, an event which ultimately led up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Exile which is ongoing. This year, many Jews chose to dedicate their fast to a hope for peace in Israel-Palestine, fasting alongside their Muslim cousins during Ramadan.

Tuesday 5th August was another notable day in the Jewish calendar. It was Tisha b’Av, one of the most significant fast days in Judaism, marking (among many other coincidental disasters in Jewish history) the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition to fasting, it is traditionally marked by adopting full mourning rituals, including not bathing, wearing jewellery, wearing new or clean clothes, sitting on chairs, using lotions or make up, engaging in sexual activity, or greeting one another. All in all, it’s a pretty intense day dedicated to bringing the person into as deep a state of sadness as is possible when they are so far detached in time and often geography from the events commemorated.

I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all.

Although I kept the fact very quiet from people around me, I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all, although for very different reasons.

My past blog posts both here and on other websites have hinted that I am losing my commitment to Judaism, or, as it is called in Jewish circles, ‘going off the derech [path]’. I feel as though it no longer means to me what it used to, and without a compulsion of the concept of divine reward and punishment, I have no real reason to continue to practice what I would formerly have done. It’s very much a work in progress in the moment, establishing what means something to me and what doesn’t, so I’m taking each day as it comes.

I thought about fasting on July 17th. Had I fasted, I would have dedicated my fast to the #hungryforpeace movement in hope that I was adding my voice to a call for rationality and brotherhood. As late as the night before the fast itself, I was still trying to work out whether or not I would fast, because the religious significance of the fast day just didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, there was the collective mourning, the sense of history, the solidarity with my people and my past, but I know that whenever I fasted in the past, it’s just been for show. I don’t really get into it, I don’t feel sad; I just feel hungry, and I like the feeling of hunger, so that doesn’t bother me. Believe me, I have used every method I can think of to connect with the day, but it just never really felt like a sad day. In the end, I decided that there was not enough significance for me to fast on the day of an important job interview and risk performing badly at the interview, so I did not fast. (As happens, I aced that interview! Sadly, someone else aced it more, and I didn’t get the job. But that’s by-the-by.)

On Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced.

In the three-week period between the two fasts, a number of factors came together in a perfect storm of horror, and on Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Twice in the first few days, I came very close to ending my life, and owe my survival to a couple of very amazing people who know who they are. Although the urges have reduced a little, they’re still simmering under the surface and bubbling up every now and then. I have passed my days in a blur of tears, self-loathing, unsatisfying sleep and an ongoing battle to keep up with my daily life as if everything was fine, even though things that used to mean so much to me are now as bland and unappealing as staring at a brick wall. That last, incidentally, is an activity that I’ve done quite a lot in the last week or so.

This is my black dog. I haven't given him a name, because I hope he won't hang around too long.

This is my black dog. I haven’t given him a name, because I hope he won’t hang around too long.

I’m not sure if  I would say that the feelings I’ve had since that Wednesday have been comparable to the experience of mourning, with which I am intimately acquainted. In the immediate aftermath of my mum’s death, I cried a lot, and I felt like life could never get better again, but I still felt like I had a purpose to life. Life may have been utterly dreadful, but I still had some kind of reason to keep going, even if it was just to get back to my degree. At the moment, in the pits of depression, that purpose feels like it has just disappeared like smoke up a chimney (to use an old cliché). The black dog of depression is doing everything it can to make my life not worth living.

When Tisha b’Av rolled around, I didn’t even stop to think for a moment about the possibility of fasting. I listened to happy music. I watched TV. I had a shower. I wore my normal jewellery, and happened to pull a t-shirt out of the drawer that I’d never worn before. The fast day was completely meaningless to me, in terms of both its religious significance and the communal solidarity it draws. Ironically, though, I felt more sad and downbeat this Tisha b’Av gone than I have ever done before. This time, I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed: my body was doing a very good job of that for me. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week by then. Far from trying to bring myself down further, I was doing everything I could to find the tiniest bits of happiness in life, just like for so many years I have tried to find the tiny bits of sadness within a generally happy life.

I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week.

There’s a little self-deprecating maxim that Jews throw around quite a lot to sum up their festivals: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’ There’s also the lesser used ‘They tried to kill us, they managed it, let’s not eat’, which is what sums up the fasts of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Having been through what I have recently been experiencing, though, I want to alter the ditty in celebration of the smaller successes. Depression hasn’t killed me yet, and every day that it doesn’t, I’m going to eat to celebrate that. Fast day or no.

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There are no words…

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.

A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.

What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?

Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.

On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.

I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.

Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.

I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.

Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.

All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.

If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.