By: Drake Dunaway
A wooden katana arrived this week in the mail. It’s called a bokken.
A few weeks ago before I landed my new job I read an article about the disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. Since his climacteric tumble from political wunderkind to a seamy byword for sexting at jailbait, he’s pieced things together with his devoted wife Huma Abedin, quit politics (in and of itself a healthy move), and dedicated his life to supporting their child through the honest day’s work of granite countertops at a company in Brooklyn. His political ambitions are a vanishing point in the rear view mirror.
In going the distance for a lasting, durable marriage, I have to hand it to the guy. “Carlos Danger” was a more successful husband than I. Now suffice it to say, his sordid pastimes are not mine, but it goes to show that a truly repented man is unstoppable…aaaaaaand that spousal immunity can save any marriage on the rocks.
As almost everyone in my circles knows by now, I filed for divorce on April 8th, we settled before trial, and have been crucifying myself ever since. Despite knowing full well that it was the appropriate course of action, my divorce in the shadow of Mr. Weiner’s lasting marriage goes to show that the race is not always to the sound of mind. And although I’m not at fault in this break-up, I’m a jilted idealist and so I’ll never let myself off the hook too easily.
After a brief latency part-and-parcel with being an INTJ, the emotions of failure and sadness surfaced with a vengeance, demanding a balloon payment in the form of a month’s lethargy, depression, unsteady hands, weak grip, and brain fog. I shied away from my usual ration of scotch and cabernets for fear of developing a dependency and for the past few months I’ve been faking it enough to limp along in requiem for a life that was.
Clearly this cannot go on. I have a daughter that needs me.
Seeking to salve my predicaments with knowledge as I am wont, I’ve been studying the themes of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Torah, Gospels, Talmud, and rabbinic sources through David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible. Now while many might fancy themselves exponents of “Biblical marriage,” unless you’re boned up on Hebrew terms like mohar, nedunyah, gittin, and ketubah, your genteel little southern chivalry myth is just that and you don’t know a whit about Biblical marriage and how ancient Israelites legally framed it.
But that’s probably a good thing, as all knowledge comes at a price. I know.
Soon thence, I whimsically concluded that nobody’s been actually married nor divorced in the last 2,000 years and humanity’s just been winging it ever since. You’d think I’m kidding, but I’m only half-kidding. According to biblical standards, most modern nuptials are probably unsubstantiated and lacking in detailed vows, most remarriages are probably illegitimate because the previous never ended properly, most children arising from remarriage are illegit little ragamuffins, and most spouses divorced through the secular state remain married on biblical grounds unwittingly. Today’s reality is the exact opposite of what the Torah intended for the Jewish people and the nations. All this makes for an avalanche of unease about a shattered world order and how countless generations just ride the waves without asking where they flow to. I fret in angst over what extinct legal institutions could actually repair and untangle this wrack and ruin.
הָשִׁ֤יבָה שׁוֹפְטֵ֨ינוּ֙ כְּבָ֣רִאשׁוֹנָ֔ה וְיוֹעֲצֵ֖ינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּ֑ה
וְהָסֵ֨ר מִמֶּ֜נּוּ יָג֣וֹן וַאֲנָחָ֗ה וּמְלֹ֤ךְ עָלֵ֨ינוּ֙ אַתָּ֤ה יהוה֙ לְבַדְּךָ֔ בְּחֶ֥סֶד וּבְרַחֲמִ֖ים וְצַדְּקֵ֥נוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּֽט׃
בָּרוּךְ֙ אַתָּ֣ה יהו֔ה מֶ֥לֶךְ אוֹהֵ֖ב צְדָקָ֥ה וּמִשְׁפָּֽט׃
Restore our judges as at first, and our counselors as at the beginning; remove from us sorrow and sighing; reign thou alone over us O Lord, in kindness and mercy, and clear us in judgment. Blessed art thou, O Lord, King who lovest righteousness and justice.excerpt from the Shimoneh Esrei
When the Messiah returns, he’ll need to sweep it up with a single, plenary amnesty declaring all marriages for the last 2,000 years as invalid. No mamzers (bastards), no adulteresses, and no agunot (marital hostages).
And yet people live on. They play out their tainted, unclean little lives and remain happy and oblivious, while paying loose fealty to an Iron Age religious text without even knowing how it all worked in its heyday like I do. Sure, they worry about what G-d thinks. But not too much. And for their breezy naiveté, G-d seems to excuse them well enow and the world keeps spinning.
Perhaps there’s a fine art to concerning oneself with G-d’s opinion, but only to an extent. Only in generalities. Step further beyond it and you’ll drive yourself mad in halls where angels tread lightly. Like I did.
My deep dive into the world of ancient Jewish marriage and family law has uncorked a much-needed dialogue around the theme of marriage at my synagogue. That same deep dive painted and elucidated for me a marital ideal backed by a bygone court system in an ancient land. Yet when I survey the landscape of the West, instead I see a fractured world full of fractured lives, that there’s a vast absurdism running so deep we can’t even see it, a gaping fissure in how little we know, and that even with all of heaven’s diktats for governing our lives, little of it is presently operating. After all, Anthony Weiner’s infamous dick pics didn’t stop his marriage from outlasting mine, and there’s nothing in the tractates about that. I discovered in my studies the marital ideal and the legal sages that once guided it for millennia, and yet today I see no trace of it in the world — at least outside of Crown Heights orthodox communities. And so at the end of my quest I stand alone on a bleak shore, slump to my knees, and laugh. It is our recognition of the Absurd — even before the Throne — that I think begets our resignation to ultimate piety. Laus Deo. Baruch HaShem.
Finally, my deep dive revealed to me that my faith — while wholesome generally — is so fraught with wracking worry and uncertainty about what G-d thinks of me, blind alleys of never-ending concern, turnstiles of second-guesses, all played out under canopies of silence from above that do me no favors, that I’ve concluded my faith is too rickety a vehicle right now to shuttle me to recovery. At least by itself.
Last week I checked in with a local therapist. He charges by the hour like most and seems to be a great listener. He’s a devout Christian to stand athwart my Judaism, but it would be prejudicial to hold that against him. Only boated arrogance writes off gifts where they can be found. He talks up PTSD’s unlikely tripwires and how it affects us in the bizarrest of ways, which means I’ll probably undergo a rigorous battery of EMDR therapy before long. All I can do is remain open, receptive, and hopefully all my warts will fritter away on the slow lathe of riddance. I’m really hoping it works and that my hands steady, that I can stop waking up feeling like 100 miles of highway, and that I can be an attentive father to my Luna. Now that those wheels are in motion, all I can do is ride it out and see where the clinical solution takes me.
“G-d wants you to be alive, well, and happy,” they assure me. Doctors. Friends. Clergy. “G-d wants wellness for us all.”
But does He?
Now it might come off as crass that I even question it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point something out. Faith’s wager asks of us: when do you prefer your happiness? Now or later? Therapy operates in the world of now, yet in contrast, faith’s priorities stretch into the next life with little ado paid to tragic outcomes in this one. Or put elsewise, you suffer now in the name of later. To wit, Jeremiah’s life as a prophet ends saddled with tragedy, grief, melancholy if not deep depression off in some cave. And sure, it was for something he never saw. The very same rabbi who warned us not to become anxious in the Sermon on the Mount is the same who bled through his skin from mortal fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. And let’s not elide that time-honored contact sport of Christians vs. Lions. None of these godward paths look anything like a road to health, flourishing, or recovery. In fact, they come off as downright harmful, as life-deranging sacrifices that demand holiness in order to usher in the Messianic Age at their gravest, or as end runs around wellness straight to realization at their tamest. G-d seems less concerned with momentary collateral inflicted onto our fleeting lives in pursuit of some higher goals that lend meaning to the present suffering. Combine those far-flung priorities with His muteness towards your standing with Him (how are we, You and I?) and it seems He wants us to figure some of it out on our own. You have no idea what’s the score, but you will be judged for it in the end.
So what am I to do now? Wellness now or wellness in the offing?
Much of what G-d asks of us is hard, impossible, dangerous, or at least unintelligible to the science that fuels psychology. And I imagine G-d’s tall ask can certainly leave us…unwell. And so while I don’t think faith and wellness are mutually exclusive, I foresee conflicts, competing interests, and clear points of departure between the two disciplines of clinical psychology and personal faith. This clash leaves no clear resolution for me surrounding a few lingering questions: does G-d want me well in this life or well in the next? Or both? Am I to sacrifice one for the other? How do I know? How can I know? And so on. And so I hold to the dissonant kludge of therapeutic faith because, paradoxically, the flighty feel of it makes it seem so much more faithy that it might be crazy enough to work. For others, it’s plain that G-d pines for our wellness, but for me it has to make sense in light of how He’s treated the wellness of his martyrs. And so my mind in clinical waters finds no place to alight, but like Noah’s dove I pray that it will.
Let’s say I curtail my Torah observance and spend my weekends at the gun range, joining the millions of good people who do so anyway in the winking compromises of half my friends. Will heaven deign to say “you needed a break, good and faithful servant” as some extended avelut? Or for my Christian friends: if I dial back my prayer and stop vexing and exhausting myself with G-d’s elusive opinion, will heaven reply, “there, there chap. Unclench and join the ranks of the unwashed. Know G-d’s designs will realize without your zeal. For clutching only so tightly is the secret to happiness in the Lord.” Or is that the damned, proverbial laxity that all the holy proctors warn us to flee? For all the strident threats in religion of dropping one’s guard and idle hands, it would be a shock to learn that in the end it’s not meant to be taken too fervidly. It would be a shock to learn that, while it’s all real, all the furtive compromises of faith au currant were an open secret that the whole world was in on but moi. What if a natural omertà grace made this obvious to everyone but myself and all my martyrial efforts were always beside the point.
I don’t know what to do, but I know I’ll be judged for it.
Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears G-d will avoid all extremes.Ecclesiastes 7:16-18
Avast: I will search for no more answers from holy books unless they leap out at me. I’ll stop exhausting myself with upward questions unless the answers are dropped on me by some unmistakable intention. The aforesaid author hinted that there is a time to search, and a time to give up. At least for now.
So I have to do something. And I can’t not do anything. So what to do?
It’s no small secret that when buckling under the weight of life (or in my case, a mid-life crisis) we often revert to a prior time for safety. Psychology calls it regression. And while it may be misbegotten in general, I suppose I find it grounding along with all the other sickos who must (otherwise they wouldn’t do it and neither would I).
I’ve been on a recent tear binging black and white Samurai flicks. When I’m down in life I always find something brave and inner surrounding the bushido way and I end up coming back to it again and again. There’s just something elemental to it all. I once read the Hagakure when I was young and felt rapt by its Zen Buddhist stoicism and mystic tones of harmony and Tao, of viewing the world as a mind-boggling interplay of substance and void and the Way itself as a technique for channeling turbulence, working through grief, mastering fear, honing focus, and accepting what simply is. And while I’m not Buddhist, all that frosty-collared forbearance I can certainly give a Vulcan salute to.
Perhaps I’ve latched onto the mythic samurai as a specter of everything I’m not right now, which is manly, strong, keen, and focused to an edge. Me? I feel worn out and stretched thin over many things, and so watching Kurosawa films hits me hard. The bestubbled ronin looks down at me with hard eyes and asks me if I’m coming or not. “Hoi ikuzo!”
In my self-improvement jag I’ll be taking some shinkendo classes and sparring with a friend of mine. Maybe I’ll conduct cha no yu tea ceremonies on Sundays when I don’t have custody of Luna. When I do buy a house I’ll design something sleek, masculine, and stylized to accommodate the outlook. Maybe a Zen garden.
With an intense, fresh and undelaying spirit, one will make his judgments within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side.
With martial valor, if one becomes like a vengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.
Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.The Hagakure; or A Metric Ton of What I Need in My Life Right Now
Looking back I can spot all my little undoings from the start. Life’s a conveyor belt of perpetual uncertainty while I’m being forced for years to guess through it. For me, and most of my life, nothing seems certain and every course of action feels like a guess. Even major ones. It’s not something I can turn off, and it feels like everything I think, say, and do is a means to quash my own personal Uncertainty Principle.
Where Zen Buddhism distinguishes itself from Christianity is its center of gravity. Heaven, Olam Ha’ba, and the Messianic Eon dominate the considerations of the latter and the focus of life is placed in the beyond, far from this world and life. Hence the term worldly is a Christian slur. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, does not deny such possibilities, but the focus rests ever in the present and truly being present for it.
Zen meditations tend to focus on your common unity with everything, the harmonies around you, accepting the world without cluttering it with judgment, label, or opinion, and truly being present for the moment in which you find yourself. Zen is to stand outside the relentless whirr of entering and exiting thoughts and be where you’re at truly. Your actions stop becoming a means for further action, but also stop being ends. Your actions simply are.
Supposing you decide to sit down for a nice cup of matcha on your porch and have a moment. But really, you can’t let yourself. You look at the tea and think of the mart where you bought it and how you have to pick up more groceries. Or instead you envy your neighbor’s pergola. What am I doing for the sake of the Kingdom lately? And no matter how hard you try, your consciousness remains not only a slave to the phenomena around you, but the pneumatic tube in your head will even spit out phenomena when there are none to fill the space. Incessantly. We’re mastered by this exhausting automaticity of quotidian deets on loop. So while Kingdom desiderata are our everything, in the practice of Zen they are but one more urgent something pouring from the spigot and screaming for our regard. The late David Foster Wallace remarked that it’s probably why most gun suicides off themselves by blowing their brains out, a final act of rebellion against Mind, our unrelenting master we can’t live without.
When you drink your tea…drink your tea.
Smell the coffee, and wake up.
Yet in so much of what I’ve read in my upbringing, living for today epitomizes worldliness, selfishness, and evil.
But is it? After all, today is where G-d puts us.
Western religions exalt shining hereafters along with what Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo dubs utopian reverie. Here Nietzsche aptly notes that Christianity shifts the center of gravity from the world whereas Buddhism aims to be present within it. Christianity centers on an ought in the mind but with scant method for self-improvement beyond simple faith. Conversely, Zen is about technique and has no opinions of ought. It’s hygiene, not hereafters. On balance, I think Judaism bridges the two with its focus on mitzvot, Mussar soul training, and its broad-reaching science of deeds accompanied by an eschatology for the world as well. Now and later.
But today I’m driven into the ditch with far too many oughts and I need quietus with whatever techniques can get me there. I don’t want to think about becoming a better person like Mussar asks me to.
I just don’t want to think about becoming anything.
I just want to become—
I just want to be.
Talking turkey, Zen is something I can practice on my own, and right now I’m feeling rather only. I really need to kill my mind and I can’t do that around the clawing demands of company, or in venues where I cannot talk to myself without judgy looks. I chose sword art because I need to whip my ass back into shape and Zen is a mindset I can translate through my bodily motions. During the first Shogunate, warriors of Feudal Japan intuited this long before I did and synthesized inward calm into a military focus through flashing steel. While books pimp out a certain kind of knowledge, nothing forces a resolution quite like a whetted edge. The sword for me is the souvenir that brings me back from the Nothing and into the blur of everything. It is the sharp totem of Logos I take with me into the Absolute; nothing scoffs at oneness like a blade. Because, however tempting, I can’t just ditch the 9-5 and pitch a yurt in eternity. So when I’m done simply being, when I’ve let go, and when I’ve stacked my mind nice and proper, I’ll snap back into focus. And when I need to think effectively, I’ll start thinking like a sword in straight vectors.
Some of my religious peers at synagogue might think I’m going off the deep end, but I’m not. Long before my Atlanta life I was a closet Japanophile and always have been. This won’t dash my monotheism anymore than it did C.S. Lewis‘, and I will continue my hide-and-seek game with G-d because I don’t think I can quit loving Him — in spite of everything.
Sometimes children end up baffled by the life choices of adults. We have the means to do everything fun, but don’t. Why would an adult plant a tree that doesn’t grow apples? Why doesn’t every grown-up enter a career that requires a special hat and gun? Why aren’t these adults going to the store with their money and buying ice cream all the time?
For me, my baffling question is how golf eclipsed swordsmanship as a fanfare for the well-heeled. Millions of office barnacles with bellies drooping over belts named Bob or Steve or Bill instead hit the fairway to a sport you’d fall asleep watching. But motorcycles, wine, mythology, true religion, campfires, gunsmithing, raucous debate, and katanas are all just effing cool. And what’s not are all the clichés for why we trade these for more sensible pastimes — sorry excuses to excuse the sorry.
Perhaps the path to inner peace is doing what seems coolest to you and not overthinking it.
This second-hand ronin will try. 夢
Featured cover art from the video game Ghost of Tsushima.