On Respecting Our Past Selves

The canoe had always been there, on the muddy path to the campsite, the one that seemed so far away when we were in the youngest village and dreaded shlepping our sleeping bags on the fifteen-minute hike. This was one of the only hikes our Jewish summer camp took us on that did not end with ice cream, and we had to hold back our complaints somehow. So we told stories.

It was flipped over, cracked throughout its underside. Faded grey and ominous, if only in that it seemed so out of place in the forest. At seventeen, I was a first-year staffer, spending unexpectedly lively days in the office making announcements, sorting mail into giant mailbox cubbies, and taking naps in said cubbies; I boasted nine summers as a camper by then and had an overzealous, know-it-all sense of familiarity with camp’s quirks and trivia.

“You see that canoe?” I asked the charismatic guy on senior staff, a division head who was driving me in a golf cart to meet the rest of camp at the overnight site, since I had had to stay back to sort packages (and revel in the eerie yet peaceful muted volume of the empty campus). He and I had been reminiscing about the “old days” of camp, since we were both “old-timers,” though only he could claim to remember the era when camp was so small that each two color war team was only comprised of fifty campers. I tried to follow up to my rhetorical question, about to impress him with a piece of trivia (as they say, “Machaneh Trivia is integral to the future of the Jewish People”) explaining to him the mystery of that odd boat. It was an automatic impulse, my internal “wise grandparent” persona chiming in.

Except as the words formed on my tongue, I realized for the first time how ridiculous an idea it was, how oblivious I had been until that very moment, how unwise to have believed the fantastical stories of eleven year-old boys, only hypothetical, “what ifs” imagined for their entertainment back in the day.

That there was a dead body lying decomposing for over a decade under a damaged canoe in a small forest in Pennsylvania’s Amish country was phenomenally implausible (and, in fact, probably rather simple for a brave soul to disprove). And I felt so gullible that I could only laugh at my own unexamined assumptions, the beliefs I left untouched, unquestioned until I brought them back to the surface of my mind. I had, until then, associated the image of that strange artifact with a mental picture of a cartoonish skeleton, and once that connection was made, it had no reason to unravel on its own. But of course there was no dead body under the canoe. And still I had believed it then, and I had never learned to un-believe it. Filed away in that mental cabinet that holds songs lyrics I learned from when my cousin would babysit me and show me MTV music videos when I was in preschool, stories as these stayed tucked away, rarely, if ever, re-explored; because, why would they be? It was just funny to me, in the way that led me to blush and respond “you know what, never mind” when this driver asked me what I was insinuating about the canoe. “It’s nothing, really. Pretty stupid, come to think of it.”

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Spinoza’s theory of thought comprehension was that initially, by default, our mind accepts a belief, and then reassesses it, rejecting it if deemed untrue. In order to believe, we must disbelieve. And this can happen in bursts of inquisitive introspection, and in the course of seconds, beneath our awareness. There’s something vaguely Talmudic about this disposition, the approach that starts with “Let’s say X is true…” and follows the logic through, considering its many angles; it pits one answer against its alternatives, highlighting the key principles of the arguments in the process. This is how we learn. We absorb our experiences and inherited legends, and search them for meaning, and later we return and return again, editing and remixing, polishing the edges of our previously assumed beliefs. It is open to challenge, to evolving through newly accumulated knowledge and perspective, without denigrating the value of the previous steps along the way. We start with “If you say Argument X is true…” We begin with believing.

Toward the end of my gap year in a religious Israeli seminary, our rabbi blessed us that we should never look back on that year of study and personal growth and scoff, “I was so naive.” He explained how common it was to leave the “incubator” of a space centered around Torah and character development, moving on to the worlds of liberal arts colleges with their post-modern theories and emphases on resume-building rather than spiritual efforts, and develop a sense of cynicism toward the past. It is so easy – too easy – to build up, in the course of one’s growth and evolution, a feeling toward one’s past that regards it as naivete; that looks back and sees someone too young and sheltered to realize that life was much more nuanced – especially people, my goodness – outside the walls of the Beit Midrash. And that is true; but that must not disqualify one’s experiences or insights in the past, even if in the light of wisdom accumulated over time, those beliefs seem relatively dim, elementary, even off-putting. The rabbi’s blessing spoke to a disposition of humility toward oneself and her process. As we evolve, we revisit and reexamine our past stances, and when they no longer fit with who we are and how we live in the world – like waking up to find your concealer suddenly no longer matches your skin tone – we can become tempted to reject where we once stood. It’s an avodah (spiritual task) to not roll my eyes at my past selves.

A friend of mine told me that this summer, she realized for the first time, mid-sentence, that Walt Disney’s real name was not, in fact, Walrus Disney. That was something that she had believed, somehow, until age twenty. Because somehow it just had not come up between her childhood assumption and that moment on a Shabbat afternoon in July.

The places we once stood, the things we held onto and then let go along our paths, are what got us to where we stand now; and we will keep moving, so that the selves we take so seriously right now will once be the “naive seminary girls” (am I projecting?) we scoff at in our enlightened state. And so, we may discover that there was no skeleton under the canoe, only a story. Many stories, actually – all real, if not necessarily “true.” These legends make us. And so we must, with most reverence, laugh along, appreciating the things we have learned by proving ourselves wrong, with love. We were not naive. Or if we were, so be it. We are learning, revisiting and revising. Returning lovingly to the dusty files you have not opened in years, the old photographs. Zooming past the canoe, I turn my head back and smile, at the evidence of my becoming.