This week's blog post is written by Alexander, a Yahel fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.
There are two types of dilemmas that inevitably shape our individual lives. The first kind, and the more visible of the two, encompasses dilemmas of circumstances – anything from natural disasters to the negative impacts of others’ actions. The second kind, less apparent but oftentimes even more consequential for our everyday experiences, is about meaning and purpose. Oftentimes regardless of circumstances, the issue of whether or not we believe that our lives are full of meaning dictate how we feel and perceive the world around us. Satisfaction, feelings of stagnation, a sense of importance, existential anxiety, optimism – all of these are directly related to the degree to which we feel that our lives have depth and importance as we tackle the dilemmas of circumstances that befall us. With enough purpose, even the most arduous of circumstances can be endured and overcome. Conversely, without this sense of direction, the smallest of roadblocks can feel unbearably deflating.
Addressing the first class of dilemmas, the ones of circumstances, entails seeking solutions: developing a vaccine, mending a friendship, passing certain legislation. The second class, however, does not speak in terms of solutions. Instead, purpose – and meaning as its offspring – requires inspiration. Indeed, a newfound sense of purpose, a restoration of hope, a resurrected motivation — these blessings are often catalysts for change that facilitate the manifestation of humanity's highest callings. Carrying such significance, perhaps it's not surprising that inspiration is one of the most elusive treasures to find.
Inspiration has served as a frequently recurring theme throughout the Yahel Fellowship thus far. For example, one of the main reasons for bringing English-speaking volunteers from around the world into Israeli schools, as described by Yahel’s Rishon LeZion volunteer coordinator, is to directly expose kids to “new things that are out there in the world, things they don’t normally see or experience in their lives.” And in that process, we engender greater interest in the language that can give them greater access to those new worlds. In other words, our purpose here isn’t just to let the students hear a native English accent or help the teaching staff plan lessons on the “present simple” verb tense; we are here to get them excited for learning English by highlighting what it could unlock, to develop relationships, and in some ways, to serve as a small inspiration for what they might want for their own futures.
And yet, ironically, inspiration is something many of us fellows crave just as much as our students do. During our weekly fellow check-ins within our cities, and in conversations with fellows from other cities, a deeply relatable and important sentiment arises consistently – “I still feel as though I’m lacking my thing”, “I came here hoping to narrow down my passion, but I don’t feel like I’ve found it yet”, and “What do I want to do with my life after the fellowship is over?”. We envy those who seem like they have it all figured out, and sometimes we might even conclude in despair that nothing in our present circumstances holds the key to our own fulfillment.
So, how should we go about finding our passions? How should we feel, or what ought we do, when we do not feel inspired? The goal of this blog post is to further explore the concept of inspiration, ultimately attempting to make sense of these questions and understand how we should approach similar ones.
Firstly, the way we speak about inspiration in our everyday conversations highlights one of its essential and even paradoxical characteristics – We find inspiration. We feel inspired. Inspiration is an “aha!” moment, something that often sets in rapidly during a certain powerful experience or introspective session. Particularly vivid illustrations of this truth can be found in the arts and sciences; according to legend, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and countless other creations were inspired by unusual dreams. Even the origins of the word “inspire,” literally meaning “breathed into,” highlights the unshakable sense that inspiration is something bestowed upon us externally in an instant. Unsurprisingly, in the early stages of its etymological life, the word was most often used in a religious context; one was “inspired” when God himself “breathed into” them. The word “spirit” shares the same root! Inspiration, as we conceive of it, simply isn’t typically built up over long periods of time.
This quality of suddenness is significant for our discussion, because it influences our behavior much more than we might realize. If inspiration – which carries the immense potential of infusing every action in life with palpable meaning and value – is suddenly received upon experiencing something new and profound, then the natural conclusion is that we should expose ourselves to as many new experiences as possible until inspiration reveals itself amidst the novelty. Sign up for that new class! Go on that hike! Apply to that 9-month program in Israel! Ask that professor to lunch! This is almost exactly what I was thinking in my decision to join Yahel as well. I hoped that by being exposed to new experiences in a variety of different volunteer placements, I would finally narrow down my passion. I would find it.
At some point, however, we must admit to ourselves that such a pre-inspiration approach to life is erratic, stressful, temporary, and can easily set us up for disappointment. You’ve been here four months, perhaps still haven’t found your passion, and skeptical that you’ll find it by going through the same routine. And yet, you’ve signed up for nine months. If we live seeking inspiration purely by packing our bags every few months in search of novel and powerful experiences, many of which require time commitments, we are setting ourselves up for feeling stagnant, disappointed, and even trapped. In search of meaning and purpose, we’ve set the highest possible expectations on our experiences, and may feel even further away from “where we are supposed to be” in the middle of it.
And besides, aren’t we always told that long-term commitment is essential? Whether it’s a relationship or a program to support a community, we are taught from a young age that the more long-term thinking we invest, the more likely our endeavors will be successful. And indeed, the advice has strong justifications. As human beings, we require a certain degree of stability and predictability to be able to function. And more concretely, establishing a degree of permanence is necessary for developing a community of support and reputation, which are undoubtedly essential for the realization of goals and well-kept mental health.
We have, at this point, run into a central tension that exists for the seeker of meaning. While permanence and stability are essential for a happy and healthy life, constantly challenging and uprooting this permanence and stability seem like the best way to find what gives life any meaning at all. The question that started our inquiry is left unchanged and even stronger in force: “How should we feel, or what ought we do, when we do not feel inspired?”. Ultimately, I believe there is a clear resolution, and in fact Yahel provides a particularly fertile environment in which to develop a real answer.
Like any good scholar of Torah knows, the simplest of stories and encounters found in a particular sacred text carry immense depth beyond the mere depiction of events, (whether or not one considers scripture “breathed out” by God.) What are other lessons to be learned in the story where Abraham binds his son to a sacrificial altar? Why is the name of God, “אלהים,” plural? Why was God only found in the gentle whisper as Elijah hid in a Horeb cave? What could the golden calf symbolize for us today? The dialogues, interpretations, and disagreements among scholars, many of them intentionally unsettled, reveal the depth of the ancient writing, and we too can uncover the same type of substance as long as we’re in the mindset to analyze and discover.
I believe that solving our central paradox requires treating life somewhat like Torah. By living a life of frequent introspection, humbly seeking the newness in old experiences, pondering the type of impact we may be having or the type of impact others are having on us, and preserving a raw sensitization to apparently perfunctory routines, we are employing monumentally powerful ways of experiencing newness and potential inspiration even when the circumstances of our lives remain unchanged. With slightly under six months remaining in this fellowship, we have 165 days to extract as many lessons, insights, and yes, even inspiration, from our ongoing experiences as possible. Just as the insights and questions from a fresh reading of scripture continue to multiply today, there is no way to extract every revelation from the experiences you are having right now in even a lifetime. And the more rooted in your present community you become, the richer the extraction; forming deeper relationships with those around us, and engaging in real, meaningful conversations can be instrumental in discovering key insights from the experiences you are having. Like finding a needle in a haystack, finding the sliver of life-energizing inspiration is much easier when each piece of hay is sifted through, and even easier if you have friends helping you out.
By adopting and practicing the mindset of seeking new depth and insight in a world that has become mundane to you, you are indeed venturing on a new journey that has just as much potential for inspiration as leaving everything behind to live in an Indian monastery or going backpacking in the Swiss Alps. In fact, through solid relationships and intentional dialogue, both of which flourish amidst stability, you may even bring inspiration even closer. With this state of mind and community of support, you are also much more likely to accurately assess when it might really be time for a big change in your life.
And we can think one step further still; when you do find your inspiration and want to embark on the challenge, task, or artistic expression that fills you with life, what will you need in order to start walking that new path? Most importantly: solid relationships with a history of your character and abilities, reputation, and a place to call home. When you think about it, every moment that you stay in an “uninspired state,” and yet still seeking depth and setting roots in community, you are setting the groundwork for your future inspiration to become your actual life.
When such a possible resolution became clear to me, perhaps more surprising was the fact that this answer was already being presented to me nearly every day in this fellowship. Intentional reflection, carefully considering our roles here, evaluating successes and failures in group settings, learning new skills to deal with interpersonal conflict, and trips to expose ourselves to new people – this fellowship is structured in a way to give us the setting, tools, and motivation at every turn to live the exact type of life that values stability and rootedness while simultaneously placing us in inspiration’s headlights. For the moments we feel stagnant, or we can’t seem to find our true calling, we must recognize that each of us has made one of the greatest decisions we could ever make by being in such an environment. You are where you are supposed to be. It is now up to us to seize the opportunity with gravity and spirit.