There once was a gal whose psychology,
She liked to expound chronologically.
Her ego, her id, all the things that she did...
Could they be explained theologically?
In 1984 I was a sophomore in high school, and I found myself in the psychology and philosophy classes of a certain middle-aged anti-war Deadhead. I was madly in love with this teacher and would regularly leave roses on his doorstep and even occasionally write him love letters. All his classes were exactly the same. Even though they were ostensibly different subjects, their most accurate name would be Self-Centeredness 101, which led seamlessly into Advanced Self-Centeredness. I aced all those classes, and in fact have gone on to take a doctorate in that subject.
Everyone sat together in a big circle with the teacher and rapped about things—not like, Yo, We’re Rappers—but in that good ol’ fashioned consciousness-raising sense; we Shared What We Felt. If we actually were rapping about it in today’s meaning, it would go something like this:
Let me tell you people what I feelin’ today,
I got my fat jeans on and it give me dismay.
No one understand me, not my mom or my dad,
I hate this dumb stupid school cuz it make me feel bad.
I ain’t got no love and my life is a bore,
I got this big huge zit no one gonna ignore.
Now, maybe some of the other people were deeper than that, but even though I have always been considered highly intelligent (remember those IQ tests?) that was more or less my mindset.
Despite those shallow tendencies, I did read books like The Primal Scream. Primal therapy is a kind of psychotherapy that assumes we can get past our neuroses by facing up to the pain in our childhood and seeking cathartic release from it. Sometimes I feel like my life has been One Big Primal Scream, and it hasn’t cured me yet. I’ve recently been contemplating a big piece of really dark chocolate instead.
One of the hallmarks of these classes was the use of The Hot Seat, where one person would be called to sit in the center of the circle, silently listening while others told them “honestly” anything they thought about them. This was certainly nerve-wracking when you were the one in The Seat, but when not, our young and cruel natures reveled in it, our smug cattiness clothed in the guise of constructive criticism.
Once the teacher told me I was “grounded” but did not explain what that meant. I took it as a positive statement about not being flighty, but a friend thought it meant I was “stagnating.” I’d never actually considered the word “grounded” in relation to myself, except when my parents had announced, “You’re grounded!”
During this period. I also studied Orthodox Judaism in some depth. When I would visit my father in the summers, I would get books at the library about Jewish laws and rituals, and fantasize about keeping kosher and lighting the Sabbath candles. It was all very Fiddler on the Roof in my little fantasy. I came from a secular Jewish family whose Judaism consisted of (1) not going to work on the High Holy Days and (2) talking, quite loudly, about how We Were The Chosen People.
That didn’t have much religious significance except to signify that we had chosen not to believe in Jesus as anything but That Man Who Caused Us All These Problems. We also felt some sense of superiority to other people in general, which usually manifested in conversations like this:
“Did you see that guy doing X (insert just about anything that annoys you here)?”
“Yeah, he’s an idiot. Obviously not one of the Chosen People.”
So, most likely, we thought we were superior to you. And you. And especially to you, Christian.
Any Christian symbol was really frightening to me, especially a crucifix. I had no idea there was any link between the Jews and That Man, other than the vague idea that his followers were always trying to kill us and/or forcibly convert us by torture and then make us eat ham as proof of our conversion.
The only contact that I had with actual Christianity was this guy in high school who looked like the stereotypical Christian—clean cut, carrying a Bible, and constantly telling any unbeliever in his path that they were going to hell unless they accepted Jesus as their personal savior Right Now. He also carried an awl just in case he convinced you to say the Sinner’s Prayer, in which case, he then had divine permission to poke another hole in his soul-winning belt.
But seriously, I thought he was nuts, and I felt like he was speaking to me in another language. Sin and salvation were just not in my vocabulary. He was certainly not properly “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” nor did he “do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).
Oddly, during this time I had crushes on celebrities who had The Jesus Look—you know, the one in all the films and paintings. Think Barry Gibb in all his 70s, white, satiny glory.
Despite things like humiliating Hot Seats and annoying, moralistic Christians, high school was a big improvement over junior high. I had somehow managed to ditch the psychopath friend and found few nerdy, yet otherwise normal companions. We discovered the joys of truancy and would spend early mornings drinking bad coffee in various breakfast joints, or sitting in the back of a red El Camino driving down the 101 Freeway until we reached the fabled Sunset Grill, made famous in song by that former Eagle, Don Henley. We saw Bruce Springsteen in concert during the Born In the USA tour, and endured all kinds of youthful traumas caused by overly dramatic love affairs that never managed to fill that void caused by the Absent Father.
I went with a friend and her enlightened hippie-ish dad to hear Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda speak in a clearing that was probably like those used by Jesus when he spoke to people. I lay with my head in my friend’s lap and tried to Become One With The Universe. The Universe obviously did not want to merge with me, because I continued on as my separate little self. That was okay, because I really liked listening to “Breakfast With the Beatles” on KMET radio every Sunday, after late Saturday nights running around in my bra and underwear at the midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
When I got into junior college, there was another teacher almost exactly like the one in high school, only shorter. I was madly in love with him, too. His favorite phrase was “Be here now.” I ignored this dictum, and would daydream and write lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” while in class, but my 18-year-old pseudo-Bohemian Self thought the phrase was oh, so deep (and my middle-aged, jaded-Bohemian self agrees, and is always hoping to actually live by that philosophy one day).
At that time, a friend and I were really trying to experience the cool Starving Artist Life by living in these studios that were actually not supposed to be lived in. A bunch of other minor rebels lived there, too, and since we didn’t have enough money for real food, we all felt appropriately hip while we tried to cook ramen noodles in our microwaves. Plus there were no kitchens, no hot water in the single sink, and just one bathroom at the end of the hall.
One of the most interesting pieces of bad art I created at that time was a black, white, and red ink drawing of flames licking up, with reaching hands at the end of each flame. Definitely trying to make some deep statement about Hell, that place in which I absolutely did not believe. But I digress.
There were some real writing assignments in that teacher’s class (no Hot Seat or equivalent to take up time), but there was still a lot of focus on psychology and “finding your own truth.” For one assignment, I actually wrote part of a short story about a woman who places a personal ad, looking for a man who would like to conceive the Messiah with her.
But why in the world did I have such a fascination with The Messiah anyway? Of course, I knew that we Jews were still waiting for him/her/it, but the majority of us saw the whole thing as an evolutionary concept rather than as a person—a kind of societal enlightenment, Hundredth Monkey thing. The Hundredth Monkey Effect is the theory that if enough people start believing an idea (or, more literally, enough monkeys learn to wash their sweet potatoes), then there will be a spontaneous consciousness-shift and everyone will suddenly start wearing Birkenstocks or Occupying Something or (insert your favorite possible utopian situation here). I was a good flower-child type and believed that if we just gave peace a chance and all that, everything would be great and that would be the Messianic Age.
Of course, I tried to convince myself that I was already peaceful and enlightened. It was Those Other Folks—probably Christians—messing with the utopian energy.