What The Man With The Imaginary Friend Taught Me About Emunah

The man in the Starbucks on 53rd street seemed angry about something. Nestled in the corner, he was surrounded by a collection of stuffed plastic bags and an old-school Dell computer. He huddled closely around it, headphones in, charger inserted into the outlet closest. Under his breath, he whispered aggressively. He was middle aged and wore a large black coat and a hat that looked a little too small. I recognized a plethora of curse words and general, unpleasant remarks, moving quickly in and out of his mouth.

Close in proximity, I was tempted to see if he was okay, but I never made eye contact. The volume of his tone became audible and loud enough for other bystanders to turn their heads.

“Don’t you know anything about propaganda? You should educate yourself before you sound stupid,” he mumbled angrily.

He edged closer to his small, wooden table, his lips very close to his computer screen. At this point I thought maybe he was on a video call with someone. He continued to speak in a low conversational tone as many do in public places. At this point I truly questioned who his words were directed to, so I put on my detective hat and smoked a metaphorical pipe.

This man truly didn’t seem to be alone. He maneuvered his body and his language around what could have only been a second being. His tone rose and fell, his movements harsh and deliberate. He didn’t look around, nor did he break character. Others had moved away from him at this point. I felt uneasy but continued to sit with my computer in my own space. The man was having a real argument with a second presence, and I was the mediator.

Suddenly, the man closed up his computer, loudly and intently. He stuffed it into his backpack with a loud motion that made me jump. He continued to gather his belongings, all the while speaking in an audible tone, violently and angrily. Of course at this point I was very aware that this man “wasn’t all there,” in fact I was pretty aware all along. But there’s something so intriguing to me about those who speak to their ghosts as if they’re real people. To those who suffer from schizophrenia and other disorders which cause hallucinations, these ghosts are real; every bit as real as you and me.

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Who are we to enter the lives of these people and tell them the people they know are fictional? Imagine walking around your whole life with a sense that, one day, was accused of being unperceivable by others. So I continued to listen to his repetitive banter. He was practically packed up at this point and I knew he would be leaving soon. I wanted to know if he was homeless or if there was anything I could do to help him. Of course, the city is full of people talking to themselves. Most of us walk by and pretend not to hear them; some of us pretend not to see them either. Being around these people makes the average Starbucks sitter feel uncomfortable and uneasy. Not to say I’m an exception, I just couldn’t help listening.

When I moved to New York, I became weary that people who “see people” decorate many street corners of the city. Some are more elaborate than others. Some are upright and hunched over in the face of their invisible companions, others pacing and speaking as they walk. For a world that has become so “PC,” many are unsure what to do or how to act around people like this. Instead of acting, we simply don’t. We become irritable and negligent. We walk away blindly, averting eye contact. We can’t bear to have to deal with something we don’t understand. Because, quite frankly, we don’t. We feel disturbed by the idea of believing what we can’t see. The man in the Starbucks on 53rd street was simply accompanied by a friend (or enemy) who I couldn’t see. Does that this experience any less real? To this man, no.

Many have trouble connecting to any sort of G-d. We can’t see Him, how are we supposed to believe in Him? Many consider the existence of an invisible, omnipotent being, laughable and simply impossible. If seeing is believing, then what on earth is emunah?

Having faith means believing that things are going on beneath the surface; a whole chain of events, entangled and messy, and completely out of our control. We believe in the plans carved out for us by the G-d who brought us into existence. Jews are a people of tolerance, or at least we should be. We follow a set of rules which are foreign and sometimes, totally nonsensical to those outside. However a Jew of real faith would never question his mantra. It’s from G-d, it’s eternal, and to many, it’s the purest definition of reality. As Jews, we stand for hours mumbling with moving lips to a G-d we can’t see, and we don’t care who is looking. We simply expect for people to trust that we know what we’re doing.

I’ve faked phone calls in the past in order to look “normal” while I verbally work through my problems in public. We know who we’re talking to when we make these phone calls home. We don’t care if we look strange when we stand in airports and in corners with leather-bound books and muttering lips.

The man in the Starbucks on 53rd street knew who he was talking to, and interrupting him was simply out of the question. He walked out into the cold evening, looked both ways, and crossed the street. I wondered if his companion was following behind him, or if his companion was good company. He seemed to be the type of friend who had seriously overstayed his welcome. I hoped the man would someday come to that conclusion, I hoped he’d be okay.