Teshuva, and the Art of Not Dying
A blog friend wrote recently of narrowly avoiding a killer because she payed heed to a moment of clarity in a bar, and fled when he went into the bathroom to smoke a joint with a friend. That got me to thinking of my life back when I was living on the edges. I was with bad people in a bad era, but an inner voice always alerted me when things were about to go wrong, and I would instinctively flee, sometimes with mere seconds to spare.
I don’t know if all people have that inner voice, or even if they need it. The old saw goes; God looks after fools and drunks, and I certainly qualified under both categories. I needed that voice. But one bitterly cold January morning I awoke in second-floor hovel in a decrepit neighborhood in Denver. That inner voice that protected me all those years was gone, and I became easy prey to evil. That mental house I lived in was not a very pleasant place to dwell.
There is a concept in Judaism called teshuva. It means to turn, return, or to turn back. The thought was that when you are lost, you go back. A long time ago I was teaching two young people how to drive a semi truck. The mechanics of driving a truck are really quite easily learned, but the ‘smarts’ you need are a bit more difficult to master. Getting lost is a given when you are driving, and you need to know what to do when things go bad. Novices will invariably think that if they just keep going, they will eventually become unlost. Of course, that doesn’t work. What you need to do is find a place to turn around, and go back to a point where you knew where you know where you are. That is the concept of teshuva.
But the point where I became lost in life was long before I started living on my own. I couldn’t hardly go back to the sixth grade and start over, as attractive as the concept was. But I could stop, and I did. In surveying my life, it became apparent that my life was like the aftermath of a tornado, when you step outside after it has passed, and find your world is just strewed piles of building materials. You really can’t do much rebuilding with that, but you do have to clear the debris.
I did need help, though, and a mentor appeared who carefully kept me on track in clearing the rubble, as well as introducing me to the source of that missing inner voice. I didn’t know it was going to be a decade or more before I could even be marginally considered sane. Had I known, I would have quit. But I persisted in clearing the debris, board by board, scrap by scrap, boards over here, scrap over there. I was still homeless, however, both mentally and physically. Meaningless jobs came and went, disastrous loves sored and fell, artificial religious constructions toppled with distressing regularity. And all I had to guide me was a voice that reassured me I was doing the right thing.
Not too long ago, that heard that voice again. It wasn’t so much a voice telling me to flee, but rather telling me that I had placed my confidence in the wrong place, and it was time to turn back to that point where I knew where I was. Again, there was the wreckage, and again there was the rebuilding, but this time the voice stayed with me. I am not so confident this time that the new house is a lasting structure, but maybe that is a good awareness to have at this late stage of life.