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Searching for Wisdom in and out of College

Reading the Zohar and ignoring metrics

A week or so ago, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria aired an interview with Professor Laurie Santos, who teaches the most popular class in the history of Yale College, a course known informally as Happiness 101, a psychology class that focuses on well-being and mental health.

Approximately one-quarter of the students in the undergraduate school, more than 1,000 collegians, enrolled in the course this past spring.

In her interview with Zakaria, Santos cited statistics from an American College Health Association study indicating that more than 30% of college students suffer from depression and roughly 50% suffer from anxiety.

While there is no one factor that explains these extremely high indicators of dysfunction among college kids, Santos noted that the excessive amount of time that students spend on social media and on electronics in general can contribute to feelings of worthlessness, particularly when students compare themselves to their peers, who may seem more popular or successful in life, based on metrics of one kind or another.

I don’t recall such a class when I was in college, a time when I was quite depressed, though my depression was something that I had always endured, going back to my early childhood.

As it turns out, I went to Yale, and I had a few dear friends in Silliman College, one of Yale’s dormitories, where Laurie Santos is now the head, or what was then known as the master.

My friends graduated when I was a junior, and I can recall worrying how I would fare socially in my senior year when I would be without my buddies, with whom I had gone on a road trip to M.I.T. and Smith College, played pick-up basketball, had meals, etc.

I can recall coming back from that road trip to Massachusetts and writing a paper for a Shakespeare comedies and romances class, where there was a small section taught by a brilliant T.A. It was the first time I had had fun in class since I was in high school.

I resolved to major in English after feeling lost in all those big lecture classes in the History department, where there were typically no sections and no papers; and when there were papers, they tended not to reward those of us who were creative.

It was around this time, in my junior year of college, that my father told me that my grandfather had taken his life.

I don’t recall being fearful about my own health at that time. What I do recall is that I was worried about my social life.

Furthermore, my mother had told me that she had just missed graduating with honors from college and that she had regretted it.

Because of my deep depression and my social failings, I had not distinguished myself academically my first few years in college.

But as I started taking more English classes as a junior, I began to do better in school.

I knew, I just knew that I could not allow myself to graduate without honors, as my mother had.

She spoke as if it were a singular failure in her life.

Given my new commitment to academics, I was furious at myself for having neglected my studies my first few years.

I was so determined to graduate with honors that I may have turned off a few people.

That is not to say that I did not earn my grades.

I had to get 10 A’s my last three semesters, and I was able to do that.

I never turned in a paper late, although I procrastinated on every one of them, due to the catatonia that marked my depression, and I pulled quite a few all-nighters.

I certainly regret the fact that I behaved churlishly at times in my obsession to get good grades.

It is also true that a lot of people ganged up on me for all kinds of reasons. Some perceived that I might have an advantage getting a job on Wall Street, a field my father wanted me to pursue at the time.

Some were jealous because I wrote well.

And some just didn’t like me because I was different, an outlier and an outcast.

A few of my peers sensed correctly that I did not have a lot of friends. In fact, just as I feared, I had pretty much none without my buddies from Silliman, who had graduated the year before.

All these years later, it matters little what jerks said or thought about me when I was in college.

It strikes me that bearing false witness against another person is among the most heinous of sins, a point made in the Zohar, the five-volume set of Jewish mysticism, which I recently completed reading.

I had first learned of the Zohar, the definitive text of the Kabbalah, when I was in college. I remember being told that you are not supposed to read the Zohar until you are 40 years old.

I never knew why that was the case, whether it was simply due to superstition or whether it was due to the need for life experience or some other reason.

I am still not sure of the reason, but I have read in some other Jewish texts, such as Pirkei Avot, as I recall, that we don’t gain wisdom until we are 40, and we should not dispense counsel until we are 50.

Now, I am 52, a few months shy of 53.

If I have any advice for students in college, it would be the following: Try to stay connected with real friends, not through social media, but through actual get-togethers.

It is harder when all your friends have graduated, as happened to me, but there were some people who wanted to help me when I was a senior.

I was just too traumatized to realize it.

When a student is going through a difficult time in college, for instance when he or she is experiencing deep depression and/or is being bullied, school administrators should have a policy of contacting the parents of the student, even if privacy laws suggest otherwise.

There should be exceptions to privacy laws that allow adults to intervene and help kids, so many of whom, as the statistics show, are depressed, anxiety-ridden and possibly suicidal.

My parents did not know at the time what I was going through when I was a senior, and neither did I.

I was not in denial. Rather, I dissociated, due to the severe trauma that was afflicting me.

As for Internet metrics, students should not worry about those at all.

The Zohar points out that computation and numbering only carry weight when they concern holy, not worldly, matters.

That is to say that if you are constructing a synagogue, you can measure a certain number of cubits, as mandated by the Torah. Or if you are honoring the covenant, it is proper that your son’s briss occurs on the eighth day.

But as it relates to finances, or number of Facebook Likes, or number of Twitter followers, please do not obsess about these matters.

The same is true of grades.

Of course, when you suffer from deep depression, as I did, when your few friends have graduated, and when you feel worthless and like a social failure, you want to redeem yourself.

It would have been nice if I could have gotten through my senior year of college without feeling as miserable and alienated as I did.

Many people ostracized me and tried to damage my reputation.

They spread rumors about my sexuality, rumors that were not true, and they sought to plant doubts about my integrity, which is laughable to anyone who actually knows me.

It baffles me that anyone could have believed the lies said about me.

I recognize that some people did not know me that well or may have thought that I conformed to the patterns suggested by the lies. Other people who trafficked in these rumors undoubtedly wanted to be validated, or perhaps they exhibited confirmation bias, as the psychologists and other social scientists might say.

It is also true that my behavior in college was not always so attractive, that I made some mistakes when I was in school.

That was more than 31 years ago.

Since then, when I have not been hospitalized in psychiatric wards, as I was in 1997 and 1999, I have spent much of my time working on creative endeavors and trying to help people.

I have done so not to atone for any selfish, immature acts I may have committed in college but rather because I have always wanted to have meaning in my life, meaning that cannot come from fake friends, nor, from my point of view, from a career in fields, like finance, to which I was not suited.

For that matter, it cannot come from metrics of any worldly kind, as per the Zohar.

No, meaning in life can come from working in a field that enriches you spiritually, from surrounding yourself with love, with people who care for you, irrespective of the number of those people.

So, for those students in Happiness 101, you might all read the Zohar when you reach 40, but until that time, try to do good deeds, which, as my late psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, once pointed out is the reason we are on this planet.

And that is the case regardless of your race, religion, college major, or where you go to school.

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