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Jewish Journal

What’s It All About?

by Teresa Strasser

February 4, 1999 | 7:00 pm

It's past midnight, and I can't sleep. I call a friend back in San Francisco, a scientist I know who is really good at thinking.

"Hi, it's Teresa. I was just wondering, What's it all about?"

"It's about two hours after my bedtime. What's what all about?"

"What's life all about? What is the meaning of it all? What are we doing here?" I ask, feeling stupid, but desperate nonetheless. There's nothing worse than an existential insomniac with a speed dial.

"That's a tough one," he responds, waking up just enough to tap into his motor functions. "All I can say is, don't hurt anyone, try to add value to the world however you can, and just follow your bliss. Good night."

Thanks, I have PBS, too. I saw that Joseph Campbell special and was moved by the whole concept of pursuing your dreams. The problem is, I follow my bliss, but sometimes it leads me down a dark alley and ditches me. My bliss isn't a very dependable creature.

I go back to playing "What's it all about" in my head. It's kind of like a hobby -- one I don't recommend -- that I pick up a couple times a year like a needlepoint project I never quite finish.

I understand I'm not the first to take it up. Philosophers, theologians and probably most people dabble in it. Unfortunately, when I go through periods of pondering what my purpose is, it tends to grind my life to a halt. Every decision becomes a battleground. I'm telling you, you don't want to be behind me when I'm choosing a flavor at Baskin & Robbins. I'm a mess. You just want your tutti-frutti, and I'm thinking, "Get the yogurt and be healthy, or go with the mint Oreo cookie because we're all going to die?"

It all started this time around when I was at work, where I've been hired to write questions for a television game show. I was clacking away at my computer, trying to write a question about the phrase "dangling a carrot." And I realized that chasing carrots has been the driving force in my life. From my first spelling bee to my first byline, I have done nothing but chase the next achievement, the next resumé line, the next thing that will impress my friends and give my parents something to brag about.

With excellent research tools at my disposal, I looked up the origin of the phrase, which comes from the practice of putting a carrot on a stick and dangling it in front of a donkey to make it move. My eyes teared up, and I had to go to the bathroom for a good cry.

I thought, what I've long suspected is true: I literally am an ass. I'm no better than a donkey, just chasing bigger and juicier carrots. What should I really be doing with my limited time here on the planet? What is "bliss," anyway?

I know Judaism tells us to do good deeds, to be kind to others, and that may be the one thing that's clear to me about living. But does that mean I'm supposed to be out cradling babies with leprosy and building low-cost housing for the homeless? What should I be doing?

Sometimes, this hobby segues into another one, which I think of as "pancreatic cancer." You see, my uncle had pancreatic cancer, and it's one of those "you have six weeks to live, so get your affairs in order" kind of diseases. You always hear about people traveling the world and climbing Mount Everest and doing all the things they always wanted to do. In a sense, we all have pancreatic cancer because we're all finite; we just don't have an exact date of death.

I'm not saying I'd like a terminal disease, just the clarity that seems to come with it. I try to imagine myself with a case of pancreatic cancer and see if that guides me. It usually just depresses me. I suggest beading. I hear that's very soothing.

Just when I was deep into my quandary, I happened to be writing a question about the philosopher Hobbes, who described life as "nasty, brutish and short."

For a second, this seemed reasonable, although it didn't explain my morning at Sam's Bagels. The other day, consuming a particularly perfect bagel with cream cheese and drinking coffee, I had the overwhelming feeling that all was right with the world. My bliss stopped by for a moment, but left quickly. Perhaps it is lactose intolerant. Still, life isn't only brutish and rife with humiliations and loss. Like even the worst episode of "Party of Five," it has its moments.

Last night, I got back on the horn and called another friend, who told me I just needed a hot bath and to "sit with my feelings." But feelings are no bubble bath; they aren't always warm and comfortable. They are only inevitable.

I told you, existential crisis management is not a good hobby. Cooking, I suggest. I hear it's very life-affirming.


Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

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