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When am I?

            When I was thirteen years old, my family moved. My new neighbor, Howie Friedman, introduced me to marijuana and teen boredom, possibly not in that order. His parents were trendier than mine so they had cable television, a novelty in those days, and a refrigerator stocked with cool condiments. We would get stupid and lounge in front of his TV, eating mustard sandwiches, too stoned to move. One day, his mother came home and I guess she was disgusted at our condition. She snapped at me, “Is this what you are going to do with your life?” I looked up, unable to do more than move my head, and said in total innocence, “Of course not. I am going to write a novel.” We could leave this as being a typical teen stoner story but for one major point. After listening carefully to other people and watching me carefully, it has become my belief that people know what their life is going to be. We all already know our own futures down to the tiniest details. I feel like I have double vision. I can almost see time as one big reality; past, present and future rolled up into one big ball of yarn. In order to operate on an ever-day basis, I have to block that out and see time as a line, one half stretched out behind me, solid and unchanging, the other half stretching forward invisibly into the future. I know that to be inaccurate for several reasons; however I need to generate that illusion in order to appear sane to those around me.
I think we hide prescience from ourselves for various reasons. Maybe we want to be surprised. Life is more fun that way. But I think there is more. I remember reading a Justice League comic book in which the superheroes had dreams showing them what the villains would do. They each cut straight to the end, trying to thwart the villains before they had a chance to implement their strategies. It ended up backfiring. The superheroes succeeded in the end but knowing what was going to happen really just messed them up. It got me thinking. If I could see my whole life laid out before me in absolute detail, what would that do for me? Would it help me succeed? Actually, no. What it might do is help me appreciate certain things more than others. As Ursula LeGuin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness when telling about prescience, foretelling the future is useful only to show the utter futility of knowing the correct answer to the wrong question. When I read a biography of a genius or artist that suffered years of rejection and failure, the happy ending puts the failure into an entirely different perspective, making it seem like part of the success. But it doesn’t really lessen the actuality of years of waking up depressed. And the fact is that for every success story there are millions of people who struggle and fail.

I also think that the infinite reality model as put forth by quantum physics is a “Duh, what did you think it could be?” scenario. I don’t trust my own perception of the past. It is no more real than the future and I have less control over it. People are okay with that when they think about the future but I think it may be for the wrong reasons. They think ‘Well, of course. I have infinite decisions, infinite choice. So each moment is a possible change.’ That isn’t my understanding of infinite reality. I understand it as every moment being a link with an infinite number of realities, all of them real. And also for my past. Each moment was a link with an infinite number of possibilities that never ceased to exist just because I think I acted a certain way. Gee, maybe there really is a me that followed through with that dream I had when I bought my first guitar and I am actually a former rock star burnt out on wine and women. That would explain a lot. I recently watched a video lecture by Kathryn Schulz on being wrong. She described an experiment where a leading expert in memory, the day after the space shuttle disaster, asked a large number of people to write down major points of the story and their personal experience. Three years later, he asked them to recall the details. Fewer than seven percent of the second reports matched the initial ones. Half of them were wrong in two thirds of their claims. One quarter of the second reports was wrong in every major detail. She takes this to mean that our memories are faulty to a shocking degree. I understood it to be an effect of the multiple reality experience. The details I remember are accurate, just not for this line of reality. The fact that we all experience it, makes forgetfulness a valid excuse and makes it possible for us to live together, despite coming from entirely separate threads of reality.

So how does this relate to prayer? Prayer is necessarily a non-time bound mitzvah. Prayer is a process of stepping outside of time in order to find ourselves. We do this by connecting to the infinite. The gemmara seems to say that we should pray all the time, yet in another place it says we should pray at a point of danger. This is a double contradiction. If we are always praying, how can we all of a sudden start praying at the point of danger? And, how can we pray all the time? The answer is, we are always in a danger and prayer is not an act but, rather, a state of being. I think the action of prayer is many things, as well. I love watching Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talking to God like an imaginary friend. It is, quite literally, awesome. I think it is also like Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Many years ago, I was working as a medic and armed guard for tour groups. My first day on the job was accompanying an American teen group in the Machtesh near Arad. The first day, we woke up at four in the morning to hike into the desert with Yisrael Chevroni, to greet the sun with meditation. We walked all morning, climbed to the top of a mountain, and stood, out of breath and tired, while he led us through a meditation. “Pick a spot in front of you, in the desert. Imagine how you feel, what you are wearing, what you see around you. How did you get there? Where are you going? Who is with you? How did they get there? Where are they going?” The meditation went on for an hour. By the end, I was audibly crying. I often feel lost in my own life. It is an almost daily experience. I wonder if people who have a life plan and follow go through this pain. For better or worse, at some forgotten point, I chose not to follow that path. So here I am, stuck with myself, lost and alone in eternity. Prayer helps me find myself, the infinitesimal point in time that is the ‘now’, flickering in and out of existence, the glittering grain of sand in the rolling desert of eternity.

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