A (Not So) Innocent Abroad: King of Pain

Ultimately, Israelis have been given two choices: to live in anger, fear and indignation; or to live to the fullest. There’s just not a whole lot of gray area in this particular equation. That said, the vast majority have chosen the latter.

Tel Aviv protests flag 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Tel Aviv protests flag 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
In his powerful novel I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb writes about how the book’s protagonist, an antihero named Dominick Birdsey, has unwittingly constructed and become the “curator” of his own psychological “museum of pain,” or “sanctuary of justifiable indignation.”
Dominick, who also narrates the book, lived a hard life, suffered a fair amount, and makes sure everyone who crosses his path knows it. Indeed, his astute, Yoda-esque psychologist, Dr. Patel, names his museum “The Dominick Birdsey Museum of Injustice and Misery” during one of his therapy sessions.
“We all superintend such a place, I suppose,” she says. “Although some of us are more painstaking curators than others… You are a meticulous steward of the pain and injustices people have visited upon you. Or, if you prefer, we can call you a scrupulous coroner.”
Needless to say, the hardheaded Dominick doesn’t take the observation very well, angrily disregarding her take on his life as yet another instance of victimization – because for Dominick, and millions of others like him, living an aggrieved existence is far easier than letting go of the pain.
Of course, with time, Dominick comes to understand the shrewdness of Dr. Patel’s observation, and changes his life accordingly.
Why do I bring this up? Simple: Following this week’s observance of Tisha Be’Av (the traditional day of mourning that took place on Monday to commemorate the tragedies that have befallen Jews), it is easy to argue that there has never been a group in the history of the planet with more reason to curate a sanctuary of “justifiable indignation.”
We, as a people, have been egregiously wronged in virtually every conceivable context for millennia. From being exiled innumerable times, hunted like rabid animals for sport, falsely libeled to an unprecedented level, to being systematically exterminated on the largest scale ever created, has there ever been a race of people more deserving – even entitled – to curate a museum of pain?
Collectively, the epic tragedies of the Jewish People would bring even the most decorated, fearless and stoic Spartan warrior to his knees, begging for mercy.
To add insult to injury, Jews are still largely treated like human piñatas globally. That said, we certainly have every right to make Tisha Be’av a daily event, replete with an endless cascade of coffins filled with the millions of names of children murdered for the sin of being Jewish.
Personally, I have erected a coliseum of indignation over much less, and it had nothing to do with being a Jew.
Be it a failed relationship, bad professional experience or schmuck who did me wrong, back in New York I was the Michelangelo of psychic pain. To be sure, before moving to Israel, I had accumulated enough anger and despair to erect and design a structure bigger than Yankee Stadium, where I was the undisputed “King of Pain.”
It was a sad, sad, money-losing venture, with absolutely zero attendance at every event (except, maybe my mother. God bless her), and I ruled over it alone.
But, as I learned here, I had unwittingly served as the court jester, as well.
I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity and absurdity of my self-pity until I came to Israel, and met countless men and women who truly had every right to erect innumerable post-modern Taj Mahals of despair. (I’m talking about architecture so mind-blowing as to usher in a new Renaissance-era of design – and have no doubt that both Steve Wynn and Donald Trump would giddily hand the Jews of Israel a blank check and say, “Build me whatever that is!”)
Okay, so you get my point.
But, here's the catch: Despite having every right to elevate self-pity to high art – to commission millions of construction crews and classically trained, snobby Parisian interior designers to create the most lavish and visually arresting structures ever created to house their collective pain – pro bono, no less – Israelis do no such thing.
They do no such thing because they know that it’s a fool’s errand.
Mark Twain once said that “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured,” and he was right. No group of people understands this better than Israelis.
Ultimately, Israelis have been given two choices: to live in anger, fear and indignation; or to live to the fullest. There’s just not a whole lot of gray area in this particular equation. That said, the vast majority have chosen the latter.
As for those who choose the former? Well, they generally aren’t all that popular around these parts, or have moved away and now call places like Florida home.
It’s the latter group that has captured my imagination, and changed my thinking. Indeed, they are the most unusual people I have ever met.
For example, in March I covered a terrorist bombing that occurred roughly a half-mile from my newsroom in Jerusalem. The bomb calculatedly went off at a central bus terminal, where mothers were picking up their children from school, and hardworking men and women were returning from a long day of work.
That day I saw more blood and thoroughly traumatized men, women and children than any set of eyes should ever have to. The scene could easily have qualified as one of Dante’s rings of hell in The Inferno. And the victims of the bombing reacted as any human would: with horror, fear, anger and tears.
But, here’s what sets them apart: A few days later, when I returned to the scene of the bombing to write a follow- up piece to assess the postmortem mood, it was back to business as usual.
The same people who witnessed this carnage continued to live their lives, without a hint of despair. They didn’t marinate in the fear and evil the way most people would. Instead, they shed their forcibly blemished skin as quickly as possible and welcomed the next day.
They did this not because they are weak, but because they are strong.
You see, when you’re dealing with an enemy who has lowered the moral bar to the depths of hell, you simply don’t ask for all that much in terms of hoping for it to be raised, if even just a little.
I have never met people who have had their cages rattled more relentlessly, and with greater cruelty, than Israelis. But they refuse to remain shaken. That is what makes them truly great.
Arguably, Israelis are the most majestic “gutter flowers” to ever grow. And despite the incomprehensibly inhospitable conditions they live in, they know they must curate a museum of hope.
To that end, while much of the country shut down for one day out of respect for Tisha Be’av, the next day – similar to the days following the bombing – no self pity was detectable. Life went on, as they know it must.
Israelis have invaluable lessons to teach the world, regardless of all the hateful protests to the contrary.
Thanks to these people, the walls of my old monstrosity of a museum have come tumbling down, and I have officially been deposed of my dubious post as the reigning King of Pain. I have never felt happier, or more relieved, because of it.
In short, Israelis taught me that holding on to anger and pain – no matter how justifiable – is, indeed, a fool’s errand.
The good news is that you don’t have to live here to demolish your museum, as well.
But make no mistake: A group that has survived – and thrived – despite the worst odds any gambler could possibly face, doesn’t have the luxury to forget. Doing so would be the ultimate sucker’s bet.
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The writer is a weekly columnist for The Jerusalem Post. He is an award-winning editor from Hearst Magazines and Dow Jones, a former New York City Government spokesman, and newspaper reporter. He made aliya from New York City in July 2010, and resides in Jerusalem.