The Lure of Leaving Early: Faith Matters, Part Two

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Note: This is the second of a nine-part series of personal vignettes that explore the challenges of the human journey from cradle to grave. Start at the beginning here.

The summer after my trip to Oregon, my wife and I decided to get a divorce. While we looked like a good couple on paper — we both loved to travel, we came from similar educational and Jewish backgrounds, we shared a quirky sense of humor — we weren't making each other happy. And frankly, I wasn't ready for the commitment and discipline of marriage. I had talked myself into our union, seeking counsel from my friends, family, and a therapist, but I was never really present for my wife in the way that she deserved. I felt guilty for that, inadequate, and ashamed.

Several months before, I'd parted ways with the congregation I'd helped to found. Major differences had emerged between my vision for the shul and that of our lay leadership. While I fought for more robust (and overt) religiosity in our services and programs, my board favored the social dimension; its focus on food and fun was, in my view, dwarfing talk of ritual and God. I also had to contend with creative but strong-willed founders who wouldn't let go and cede power to others. Taken together, these new realities made my experience as a spiritual leader intolerable.

I also moved out of New York. Now that my marriage and my longtime job had both come to an end, there was nothing to keep me there any longer, and I was sick of the city anyway. I'd avoided getting sucked into the narcissism of New York, a mindset that made the rest of the country seem like a suburb. As an author and teacher, I'd spoken in other cities all over the country, and I knew firsthand that there were plenty of happy people who lived outside the Big Apple. I'd actually come to envy their much better quality of life and the far more human pace by which they lived.

These changes were important and necessary. Yet having them all occur at the same time — that was surreal. And soon they came to feel overwhelming.

One year after I made the biggest decisions of my life, I stood high above the jagged shoreline of Lake Superior. I'd been invited by a synagogue to lead a retreat in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and I stayed on afterward to do some traveling and hiking on my own. It was early fall, and it had been over two decades since I last set foot in the UP. I viewed my journey there as a pilgrimage of sorts, a return to a place that had given me a measure of solace at another time of transition, following college graduation. So much had occurred during the intervening years. Maybe too much.

My life was still unsettled, personally and professionally. I had moved back to Chicago, where I grew up, but I was living as an adult in my parents' condo downtown; all of my books and other meaningful possessions were in storage in Yonkers. I hadn't yet landed a new full-time position, and I wasn't even sure what it was that I wanted to do with the next chapter of my life. I had failed at marriage and I continued to struggle with commitment. Mainly to distract myself from my feelings of pain and humiliation, I was drinking and debauching like a teenager. But this state of limbo was taking its toll on me. I didn't know how much more uncertainty and anxiety I could endure. There were days when, for no apparent reason, I'd suddenly burst into tears.

A few days after the retreat, I drove to the trailhead of one of the UP's most spectacular hikes, the Chapel Loop, a twelve-mile trail that cuts through the center and outer edges of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. On the loop trail, I passed birch, beech, and pine trees, streams, waterfalls, and small lakes. After a few miles, the trail opened onto the southern shore of Lake Superior, where I saw Chapel Rock itself. Like the other rock formations along the lakeshore, Chapel Rock was sculpted by erosion from the wind, ice, and waves. As the trail climbed steeply, I looked down from sheer sandstone cliffs and saw arches, turrets, and dunes. The sky was grey and the wind was strong. Whitecaps rolled toward the shore and crashed into coves and caves below me.

Not long afterward, I reached a particularly stunning and exposed ridge just off the trail. I walked to the very edge and gazed down at the churning water. Chapel Rock was no longer in sight, but its symbolism was not lost on me. As I stood alone, buffeted by wind, my life adrift, there was no sanctuary left to protect me. Here I was, in the middle of life's journey, confronted by what seemed like endless bewilderment and sorrow. I was an outsider, someone unable to fit into a stable, normal path. It felt harder to hold myself back than to leap into Lake Superior. Why go on? I asked myself. It would be so easy to jump, to kiss the void rather than to get back on the trail and continue my journey into the dark forest. Death might be a mystery, but so was life. What was the difference? My heart raced. Adrenaline coursed through my body. The impulse to end things felt irresistible — and it scared the hell out of me.