> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

What Else Is There?

May 8, 2009 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Do I try to find the hidden meaning in my life at this moment or pretend that I'm free to give up?

It's sunrise. The stones are full of shadows merging into light. Beyond the edge of the Western Wall, the muted pink of the sky is slowly changing to baby blue. I stand at the back of the plaza, willing myself to step forward. I am afraid. I'm afraid that if I come closer to this holy place, I will feel… nothing.

It is apathy that has been plaguing me lately even though I try hard to gloss over it in my mind. It's that scary feeling that nothing really matters. It was this same feeling that hung in the silence after my friend began taking drugs during my freshman year of college. He was the kind of guy who seriously had everything going for him. He was good looking, rich and intelligent. He was even nice. So I asked him: "Why are you doing this?" And he turned to me with a completely straight face and answered: "What else is there?"

This answer frightened me so much that I tried desperately to forget the conversation all together. He drifted into the hard core fraternity world. I drifted into the library. At the end of my junior year I passed by him on campus, and I almost didn't recognize him. He was dressed differently, but what really struck me were his eyes. They used to be full of life and energy. Now they were so empty, I wondered if he was half asleep. But I knew somehow that he had answered his own question over the years. There is nothing that matters. Nothing.

That year my prayers had one overarching theme: Please show me something that is real.

And I tried to fight that answer because I knew I couldn't live with it. But the battle to find meaning is far from simple. And when I encountered ideas that sparkled, I was often crushed to find that they weren't diamonds after all. Sometimes they were just illusions. It was like putting out my hand to hold a phantom object. That year my prayers had one overarching theme: Please show me something that is real.

Frozen in Jerusalem

So that's how I arrived here at the Wall at dawn. It is the summer before my graduation, and I know somehow that this is my last stop. I had come to Israel for answers, but the summer has been long and hot and disappointing. Of course, it has been beautiful, too. It has been breathtakingly stunning at many points. Rappelling down waterfalls, swimming in the Kinneret at twilight, sleeping under the desert stars. But I didn't find any answers, and I am afraid that I won't find any here in Jerusalem, either.

So I remain frozen in my spot at the back of the plaza until my courage gets the best of me. Go. Try. At least touch the Wall. At least try to pray.

I move forward through the cool, Jerusalem air until I reach the Wall. Even before I reach out my hand, I feel that once again I am grasping for fabricated meaning. There is nothing here for me. Here, in the place where I was sure that I would belong, I simply feel like an exhausted stranger.

But then I hear it. It's an echo of a song, and it's coming closer. I turn around, and a sea of yeshiva students seems to float across the plaza toward me. They are singing a joyous song, full of promise: "You do not have to finish all the work of the world, but you are not free to give up on it." The song fills me with a sliver of an answer that I can't explain. There is ‘something' else that matters, but I can't quite figure out exactly what it is.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Two months later I'm sitting in the career counseling office of my university, staring at the gray carpet and bright orange chairs. My guidance counselor looks up from my folder and smiles: "Well you have the grades, your MCATs are fine, your extra-curricular activities are great. So where do you want to go?"

I feel a panic rise up within me as the question lingers in the air. Where do I want to go? My prepared list of graduate schools grows fuzzy in my mind. Where do I want to go? My guidance counselor looks utterly confused. "What's wrong?" she asks, as I squirm in my chair.

"I don't know. I just don't know…"

The guidance counselor flashes a look of gentle concern as she closes my folder: "Well, that's okay. You can think about it, and we'll meet again next week."

I walk out into the autumn afternoon, and for a moment I see my old friend's face pass before me. What else is there? There's something. There has to be something. I think about my life up until this moment. How I wore the right clothes, and how I went to all the right schools. I had even had all the ‘right' friends. But so what? Where was I now? I was lonely and confused, and I was about to embark on the ‘right' career that really wasn't right at all. It was just another layer of the mask.

So I did what I always do when I am confused. I pulled on my sneakers and ran. I ran past my favorite library where I had spent countless hours cramming for organic chemistry. I ran past the physics lab where I had spent hours recording results of endless experiments. I ran past the dorms and the football field and into the city streets. I ran until the day turned into night, until the enormous buildings around me glittered with promise. I ran until I could hear the echo of that song from Jerusalem. I ran until I could remember the white stones etched across the ice blue sky. And I could almost hear my footsteps on that marble plaza. Just take one more step, and you're there.

Standing in my dorm room that autumn evening, I decided: Everything matters.

I'm standing on the dark sidewalk, listening to the lonely sounds of a city going to sleep. I am so tired of pretending. I am so tired of fake smiles and half-hearted answers. I want to turn over my whole life. Start again. But that is even more frightening than staying in one place. So I walk back to my dorm room, and I see a message blinking on my voice mail.

"It's Mom. Wanted to check how everything's doing. Also are you coming home for Rosh Hashana?"

I stare out the window at the skyline glowing in the night. And suddenly I know. I remember how I stepped forward toward the Wall even though it seemed like just another obstacle. I remember the words of that song: You do not have to finish all the work, but you need to try. It's true that I might not find the answer to my purpose in life. I may not be able to solve all the mysteries and fill in all the blanks. But I also know that I will keep trying to answer that question: What matters? I will answer it in different ways and on different levels.

And standing in my dorm room that autumn evening, I decided: Everything matters. Everything. The question will always be: Do I decide at this moment to try to find the hidden meaning in my life or pretend that I'm free to give up? But this I know: I'm going home for Rosh Hashana. I'm going to step forward toward the Wall in my heart, and I'm going to listen for the echo of those words: You don't need to finish, but you have to begin.


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